It was a small moment in the lengthy and glorious careers of Marc-Andre Fleury and Jonathan Toews. But it spoke strongly and clearly to the respect Marc-Andre Fleury garners around the NHL. Not just in Vegas and Pittsburgh, where he has built relationships with teammates and fanbases, but league wide.
Toews has forged a reputation as one of the most competitive players in the NHL. He has three Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals, one World Championship gold and two World Junior golds. With his Chicago Blackhawks trailing Fleury's Golden Knights by a score of 2-0 late in the second period of Tuesday's game in Vegas, Toews found himself alone on Fleury's doorstep with puck on stick. He rapped once. Denied. He rapped harder a second time. Denied.
And as the overflow crowd of 18,319 poured a chorus of love down on Fleury, the Blackhawks captain tilted his head to the rafters and laughed at himself and his fate. Then, knowing the burden on Fleury following the death of his father, Toews slid back out of the pack and looked over at Fleury and mouthed a few words mixed in respect and friendship.
"I couldn't hear him," said Fleury. "But I saw him after the game and he was very nice. First, he said, 'You robbed me.' Then he said some nice things. He's a good guy."
Fleury's father Andre died at the age of 63 on November 27, and the goaltender and son took some time away from the team, sitting out seven games.
Tuesday's 5-1 win, a shutout bid spoiled by Dominik Kubalik with just 27 seconds remaining, was Fleury's first back in the net.
"Yeah, a little bit (emotional). I got to think about (my dad) a bunch. I'm just happy we got the win there at the end," said Fleury, his eyes rimmed with red and his voice at times halting. "Things were happening faster than I remembered and it took me a little bit, a few minutes there to get going. The more the game went on the better I felt, the more calm and relaxed. But the guys in front played very good for me, so that's a big help too."
Fleury was greeted with an ovation when his name was announced prior to the game, and throughout the night as he made save after save, the crowd continued to pay him off.
"It was good. I was away for a little while and the first game you're always a little worried to see how things are going to go and I want to do well for the team, so I'm happy that things worked out pretty good today," he said, after stopping 28 of the 29 shots he faced. "I've got so much encouragement and support from my teammates, people on the team and the fans. And, again, (Tuesday) they were very nice to me and it's always nice to get that feeling when you get back on the ice."
Fleury's absence underscored with his teammates how much he means to them both on and off the ice.
"He's the greatest leader I have ever been around," said winger Max Pacioretty.
That's no small statement from a man who was once captain of the Montreal Canadiens.
Teammates say Fleury isn't a screamer and he doesn't speak in order to hear his own voice.
"When he speaks, we all listen. I've never seen anything like it. When he stands up, the room goes silent," explained Jonathan Marchessault. "And when he's done, there's no questioning him. Flower said it, so that's the way it is."
Golden Knights President of Hockey Operations George McPhee and General Manager Kelly McCrimmon knew they were getting an elite goalie when they selected Fleury in the expansion draft; they didn't know they were getting a leader who would guide their team literally and figuratively to a place of prominence on the NHL map.
They also couldn't have known they were bringing an athlete to Las Vegas who would ingrain himself in the city and the hearts of its citizens. All while not aiming to do anything more than play good hockey and put smiles on the faces around him.
Fleury is both effortless and authentic as a leader.
"The reason he's such a good leader is because he's such a good person," states Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb. "Everyone loves him. That's why we follow him."