Penguins veteran Marc-Andre Fleury proved he's still a world-class goalie -- and teammate

PITTSBURGH -- Despite all the speculation that Marc-Andre Fleury might be dealt at the trade deadline, despite Pittsburgh Penguins fans chanting his name in his final home appearance before the deadline, despite Fleury's own emotions welling up in media interviews, the odds were always weighed heavily toward him staying in Pittsburgh.

But right up until 3 p.m. ET on March 1, Fleury still didn't know for sure whether he was staying put.

Than kind of uncertainty can mess with a goalie. So can not knowing when your next start might be or drawing the tough assignment in back-to-back games. It's all stuff Fleury, 32 -- who had been Pittsburgh's starting goalie from 2005-06 until last spring's playoffs, when rookie Matt Murray stepped between the pipes and became a star -- had to deal with for the first time in his career. It definitely wasn't easy.

"Sometimes I had to find ways to stay sharp without playing too much," he said, following his first postseason win since 2015, a 3-1 decision over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night. Fleury was the surprise starter after Murray was a late scratch after getting injured in warm-ups. Fleury came up big, delivering a 31-save performance that put Pittsburgh in the driver's seat, with a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

This has been a difficult season for Fleury, who won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009, and owns 54 career playoff wins. He had a .909 save percentage in October -- and that dipped to .889 in November.

Through it all, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford never lost faith in him. In private conversations with Rutherford during Fleury's struggles, the message about the veteran remained upbeat and positive. Fleury just needs regular playing time, Rutherford would say. He's still a world-class goalie.

But he was accustomed to being the No. 1 guy. Perhaps the easy thing to do would have been to demand a trade. Pack his goalie bag and go home until he landed a starting job somewhere else. Fleury's agent, Allan Walsh, has used that tactic in the past, most recently with Tampa Bay Lightning winger Jonathan Drouin.

But Fleury had a sounding board in Rutherford, a former goalie. Walsh and Rutherford also talked frequently throughout the season, and the general manager went out of his way to exceed any contractual requirements out of respect and courtesy to Fleury.

The moment the trade deadline passed, Rutherford received a text from a reporter wanting to know if a Fleury deal might trickle in after the final buzzer.

The answer was no. He wasn't trading him. Why not?

"Didn't want to," Rutherford texted back.

He didn't want to. It was that simple. The Penguins had the cap space to keep Fleury, who also had a limited no-trade clause. Rutherford had a sense that he might need him. He was right about that, even before Murray tweaked an injury during warmups before Game 1 against Columbus.

The Penguins had already turned to Fleury several times just to reach that point.

"In the month of March, we played 16 games in 31 days," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "We relied on both of them through that process. The fact we were able to share [goaltending] duties really helped our team in that condensed schedule down the stretch. Marc was a big part of that. He's a great goaltender. He's a terrific kid, he's a great competitor, he's a good pro. He's a great teammate."

That last part is undeniable. Through all the trials -- which began with him suffering two concussions last season, and continued with him losing his starting job to Murray and then not knowing where he'd play for sure until the trade deadline -- Fleury did not gripe.

It's not uncommon for veteran goalies to ignore younger teammates who are trying to take their spot. In some cases, it goes beyond ignoring them to being flat-out mean.

That was never the case with Fleury. He lost his job, but he still shared everything he knew with Murray. The two still eat meals together. They break down opposing players' tendencies together.

"They have a friendship," Sullivan said. "Obviously, they're competitors and they both want the net and there are times [when] there isn't enough net for both of them."

Right now isn't one of those times.

The Blue Jackets were suspicious when Murray didn't play the final two games of the regular season. They thought something might be up.

But nobody knew for sure how this was going to play out. Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley said he didn't realize Fleury was going to get the Game 1 start until he looked over during warmups and saw that Fleury was the only Penguins goalie.

"I put two and two together," he said, smiling.

Daley was fine with it. As were all of his teammates. Such is the luxury of having a Stanley Cup winner and former No. 1 goalie as your backup.

"You have a world-class goalie who has been there, done that," Daley said. "We're so happy that he got this opportunity. And he ran with it."

This isn't a one-game issue. If Murray's injury is to the groin, as some have suspected, it could be a lingering issue throughout the postseason.

This is the exact reason Rutherford wanted to keep Fleury around. He was always a bit of a luxury on this roster. Until he wasn't.

After the trade deadline, Fleury's game picked up. In seven games after March 1, he went 3-2-2 with a .927 save percentage. He finally didn't have to worry about his status. He knew he was going to be a part of defending the Penguins' championship.

Fleury -- who will start Game 2 on Friday -- will get another opportunity to build off that success. He'll get a chance to add one last winning chapter to the Fleury legacy in Pittsburgh.