In the twilight of his Hall of Fame career, goaltender Jacques Plante enjoyed a remarkable renaissance, a throwback to his dominance in the nets.
He was asked how this happened and he smiled slyly, which was how he always smiled.“ Ahh, I am getting old,’’ he said in his French Canadian accent. “I am slowing down and I am having trouble getting out of the way of the puck.’’
Who could argue with that logic? And the same case might be made for Marc-Andre Fleury, whose brilliant play led the expansion Vegas Golden Knights deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Fleury is 33 and has been in the NHL since he was the No. 1 draft choice pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2003. He had played in nearly 700 games for the Penguins and owns three Stanley Cup championship rings.
Last summer, Pittsburgh decided that between Fleury’s age and salary, it was time to move on. The old goalie had seen 14 years worth of pucks flying at him. That is a lot of rubber, a lot of shots. He was slowing down. But then, you know what Jacques Plante said about that.
Pittsburgh’s front office decided that younger, cheaper Matt Murray would be the Penguins’ goalie. Fleury was left exposed in the expansion draft and snatched up by the new Las Vegas franchise as their first choice.
When he arrived in town, Fleury found goaltender coach Dave Prior, who knows a thing or two about this particular craft. It was a perfect match and together they have been pivotal parts of a magical season that delivered a division championship to Vegas and now has the Golden Knights on the cusp of the Stanley Cup finals.
Prior packs plenty of wisdom in his relationship with Fleury, talking him through the rough patches that every goaltender experiences. He had lobbied for Vegas to pick the ex-Penguin and when they did, Fleury became the face of the franchise. With Prior in his corner, he responded with a brilliant season, 29 wins in 46 starts, with a 2.24 goals against average and a .927 save percentage, the best marks of his career.
The couple have worked well together, largely because of the respect they have for each other. Fleury’s role models as a youngster were goalies that Prior had coached. Their pairing has been perfect.
When the Golden Knights first showed up in this show town, Vegas was unimpressed with the roster of leftovers supplied by the rest of the NHL teams. That’s what expansion teams are supposed to be, rosters of washed up veterans or youngsters who are more suspects than they are prospects.
Even with a familiar goalie like Fleury in place, the professional odds-makers in this town quoted the Golden Knights as 500-1 shots to make the playoffs. The odds are much better today.
And by the way, Matt Murray and the Penguins are watching all this from home. They were eliminated from the playoffs a couple of rounds ago.