LAS VEGAS -- All season, the Vegas Golden Knights have looked to goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to lead the way, on and off the ice, as they have navigated a long, hard road from expansion hopeful to one of the final two teams remaining at the end of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Now trailing the Washington Capitals 3-1 in the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Final, Vegas needs Fleury, one of the few playoff veterans on the team, more than ever.
Fleury has won the Stanley Cup three times and had 115 postseason games of experience entering the playoffs. He knows what it means to be facing long odds in a series.
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These are the longest of long odds. Teams trailing 3-1 in a best-of-7 Final have a series record of 1-32 and have lost 31 straight. The lone winner was the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, who came back from down 3-0 against the Detroit Red Wings.
But Fleury knows the way to salvation. He knows the pressure that has shifted to the Capitals, who are preparing for Game 5 here Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS), when the Stanley Cup will be in T-Mobile Arena and could be Washington's for the first time with a victory.
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"I think I'll try just to remind everybody to stay calm, right?" Fleury said after practice Wednesday. "Play our game, try to enjoy it. It's the Final. It's big stage, obviously. We can't be scared of losing. I think we've got to go out there and play hard and attack. Be on our toes and go create some good stuff.
"It's all about the team. We've won as a team throughout the season and throughout the playoffs. That's what it's about. You win and you lose as team, and it's no different here."
But it is slightly different.
The Golden Knights have relied heavily on Fleury this postseason; he has been their focal point. For three rounds, he was their best player, and it wasn't even close.
He had four shutouts and allowed two or fewer goals in 10 of the first 15 games as Vegas dispatched the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets.
He has not been the same player in the Final. He has allowed 16 goals in the first four games, including six in a 6-2 loss in Game 4 on Monday.
"I wish I could say Fleury hasn't played well [in the Final]," coach Gerard Gallant said. "He's played good hockey, he's a good goalie, and he's played real good for us.
"Our team has to play better defense in front of him, take care of [the defensive] zone, and make sure we don't give Washington a chance to make those plays. They have some really good skill. We have to make sure we are taking those passing lanes away."
Despite Fleury's struggles, the faith of his teammates remains unwavering as they try to take the first step of what they hope will be many toward saving this magical season.
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"I don't think there are a lot of better goalies than Marc-Andre Fleury in the League," fourth-line center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. "There are good goalies, and then there are the few guys that are unbelievable. He's in the unbelievable [class]."
Vegas forward James Neal feels the same.
"He's one of the best in the world, and he is going to have his best game tomorrow," Neal said. "But, I think, for us, we have to worry about our job and we have to help him out. A lot of goals in this series, he hasn't had much of a chance."
Fleury, for his part, believes the lessons learned during a regular season of discovery and a postseason of unexpected dominance have matured this group and they are ready to beat the odds once again.
"Nobody's quitting," he said. "I think we have great character in this room, and we've shown it all season long. We'll be ready for that Game 5.
"I think they're tough all in their own way, right? But I think right now this is the Cup at the end of it, so it means more. It's good that we've been through those times, through those tough times. I think it made us a stronger team for moments like this."
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