The Flower is back in the ’Burgh.
Marc-Andre Fleury returned to active duty in Pittsburgh on Sunday as he made his first start in goal following his rehabilitation of the severe high ankle sprain he suffered on Dec. 6 in Calgary. He earned the win in the Penguins’ 3-2 overtime shootout triumph over Atlanta at Mellon Arena.
“It was good to get a win,” he said. “There’s a good difference between here and the AHL. It’s good to see what it’s like here again. Just from practicing, I got a little more into it. Maybe after a couple more games I will feel more comfortable.”
It’s been a long road back for Fleury. The 23-year-old goaltender took a huge first step with a dominating conditioning assignment with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He started five games with the American Hockey League team and posted a 3-2-0 record, a .950 save percentage and a 1.42 goals-against average as he allowed just seven goals in five contests.
Both of his losses with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton came in 1-0 games. Dating back to the start of the 2005-06 season, Fleury holds a 13-2-2 record in his last 17 AHL starts.
“I had a good time in Wilkes-Barre. I was happy to get playing again. I was a little rusty and a little nervous at the beginning,” he said. “I didn’t know what I’d look like since I hadn’t played in so long. But, it’s good to get some wins and get some good games. I am happy to come see the guys back here and play with them again.”
Fleury made his return to Penguins practice last week. However, he had seen some action going against the other injured Penguins, such as Sidney Crosby, during his rehab.
“I had some good practices here with some of the guys. There were a couple injured guys who would shoot on me a lot before I went down there,” he said. “I was in good shape. [Strength and conditioning coach] Mike Kadar kept me in good shape all this time. I felt pretty good out there.”
Before his return to Pittsburgh, Fleury had missed 28 games for the Penguins since suffering the ankle injury against the Calgary Flames. He had won four consecutive starts prior to his injury and posted a 1.00 goals-against-average, a .955 save percentage and one shutout in those four victories. Fleury appeared in 23 games with the Penguins this season and holds a 10-8-1 record, including two shutouts.
It was difficult for Fleury to watch from afar as the team continued to play.
“It was the first time I have been injured at all, knock on wood, so it was kind of frustrating at times just doing nothing but watching,” he said. “It was long, but now I am happy to be back.”
However, Fleury is glad to see the Penguins continue to play well and remain one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference in his absence.
“There have been lots of games lately and the guys have played really well,” he said. “We got some wins and we’re high in the standings and now it looks good for playoffs, so I am excited to be back here.”
In addition, goaltenders Ty Conklin and Dany Sabourin have shined between the pipes for the Penguins.
“Both guys have done a great job. They are the reason why we kept winning,” Fleury said. “I think that’s great for the team and I was always cheering them on. I was really happy to see the team winning.”
The Penguins are in the midst of a grueling stretch of games. They can’t afford to have an off night while fighting for the Atlantic Division title and jockeying for playoff position.
“It’s pretty crazy. For us, it seems like if we win one game, we’re up two places in the standings, but if we lose, we’re down. It’s pretty tight and that’s why every game is important until the end of the season,” Fleury said. “We have lots of games coming up. We need those points and we need to stay up there in the standings. Whoever is going to play [in goal] is going to try his best and try to make sure the team wins.
“Last year was our first experience going through a playoff race,” he continued. “I am sure it will help us this year learning from and getting experience last year.”
Even though Fleury is back, some people may not recognize him. The young goalie has a drastically different look in net. Gone are his distinctive yellow pads, which have become a trademark ever since he joined the Penguins. Now, you’ll find Fleury clad in all-white pads.
“I made the decision to play with the white pads. The players on the team said it looks bigger. They feel the same, just maybe different for the shooters,” he said. “One day, I got a letter from an eye doctor and he said yellow is a color picked up faster by the eyes. If it gives me an extra half second before the guy shoots to see where I am at in the net, I’ll take it.”
Of course, it still seems weird to see Fleury decked out in the white gear.
“It’s different. It’s not me,” he said. “I guess I’ll get used to it.”
That didn’t stop him for breaking out the yellow pads one game in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton when the team wore all-gold jerseys.
“I always wanted to wear yellow pads with a yellow jersey,” he said. “It’s all about style.”
Nevertheless, Fleury, who ranks fourth on the Penguins’ all-time list with 67 career victories, is just focused on helping the Penguins win more games.
“I have been looking forward to it for a long time,” he said. “I think the team has been playing great. It’s the system. The forwards are playing well and the defense is playing great, too. All that together makes us a better team.”