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Fleury welcomed back by Penguins fans with open arms

Pittsburgh shows its appreciation for Golden Knights goalie

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- The moment came 6:57 into the first period Tuesday. During the first TV timeout, Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury skated behind his net, squirted water in his face, leaned on his stick and looked up at the scoreboard screen at PPG Paints Arena.

His old hockey life flashed before his eyes, a tribute to everything he did for the Pittsburgh Penguins. There he was going No. 1 in the 2003 NHL Draft, making acrobatic saves, lifting the Stanley Cup, interacting with fans. The final image: Fleury riding in a championship parade, fans flanking him, city surrounding him. The message: "THANK YOU, MARC-ANDRE."

The fans cheered and chanted his name. He saluted with his stick, waved with his glove, tapped his chest, clapped for them as they clapped for him. He skated back into his crease, but they would not stop. For more than a minute, they kept cheering and chanting.

"I was happy I had a mask on," Fleury said.

At one point, Fleury reached into that mask to wipe away something. Tears?

"Maybe," Fleury said with a bittersweet smile. "It was sweat. A lot of sweat."

Yeah, sweat.

Video: VGK@PIT: Pens salute Fleury in return to Pittsburgh

Fleury lost 5-4, allowing five straight goals after the Golden Knights had taken a 2-0 lead, more than he had in all but one game this season. Afterward, he threw his stick in the hallway. But he made big saves too, and this was about 13 seasons more than one game. In time, he'll remember his return to Pittsburgh like his time in Pittsburgh: for the highs, not the lows.

"It's a night I won't forget," Fleury said. "I'll forget the score."

Fleury won 375 regular-season games with the Penguins, fourth by a goaltender with one team, after Martin Brodeur's 688 with the New Jersey Devils, Henrik Lundqvist's 426 with the New York Rangers and Tony Esposito's 418 with the Chicago Blackhawks. He set a Penguins record with 44 shutouts. He was part of three championship teams.

But that's not why he was so beloved. He grew up in Pittsburgh, went through ups and downs, and played with the joy we like to think we would if given the chance. He was called a great teammate so often, you'd have thought that was his position, not goaltender.

"It's the personality," said Scott Parson of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. "It's the glowing smile, the smile coming out from behind the mask, kissing the goal post if the post saved him, and his involvement in the community."

Scott and his wife, Kelly, used to come to three or four games a season and sit where the Penguins defend for two periods so they could watch Fleury. When they came Tuesday, Scott wore a Penguins Fleury jersey, Kelly a Golden Knights Fleury jersey. Never before had she come supporting an opposing team.

"It's half-opposing, because it's still Fleury," Kelly said. "So I'm kind of hoping if people see it, they'll see the back and be like, 'Oh, OK. That's fine.'"

They were not alone. There were lots of Fleury jerseys representing both teams. Preston Graham, 12, of York, Pennsylvania, wore a Golden Knights Fleury jersey over a Penguins Fleury jersey. His brother, Creed, 16, wore a Golden Knights Fleury shirt. His father, Cory, wore a Penguins shirt.

Favorite team?

"Oh," Preston said, pausing to think. "I guess I'm going to have to stick with the Penguins."

Favorite player?

Still Fleury.

When Fleury came out for warmup, he was greeted by hundreds of fans with signs ringing around the Vegas end.

"THANK YOU 29."

"ONCE A PENGUIN, ALWAYS A PENGUIN."

"WELCOME HOME, FLOWER."

"I didn't really know what to expect," Fleury said. "Just in warmup, I had goosebumps skating around with all the people at the game with the cards and the kind words."

The fans cheered and chanted his name. He tossed them pucks as souvenirs.

"You saw what he meant to the city with the way the fans reacted to him," Golden Knights forward James Neal said. "It's pretty special. I don't know how many players can go back to a team like that and they're chanting your name in warmup."

Fleury tapped the pads of his successor, Matt Murray, and shared a few words. At the end of warmup, he skated to center ice. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang fired a friendly shot at him. He knocked it away.

The fans chanted Fleury's name before the anthem. It was hard to settle in.

"It was very … uh, I don't know, just weird, you know?" Fleury said. "A lot of games here, so it was different."

Now imagine how hard it was after the tribute.

"Just an incredible ovation," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said.

Video: The crew on Marc-Andre Fleury's return to Pittsburgh

Fleury stopped a Crosby redirection and a Jake Guentzel breakaway. After Guentzel crashed the net, Fleury patted him on the head. Fleury poke-checked the puck from Evgeni Malkin to foil a breakaway. He made a spectacular glove save on Carl Hagelin.

Still, these were the Penguins, and five times, the roars were not for him anymore.

"Now I get to see what the other goalie faced all these years," Fleury said.

At least we got to see the person the Penguins had all those years, all class. Amid the postgame interviews, amid the disappointment of the loss, Fleury made sure to appreciate the appreciation.

"The support I've gotten over the years here has been incredible," Fleury said. "I want to thank everybody for all these years and once again showing up tonight with such great support."

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