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Fleury stars for Pens in emergency call

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

As Marc-Andre Fleury stepped onto the ice at PPG Paints Arena for the Pens' pre-game warmup session, he was preparing to be the team's backup goaltender against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1 of their First Round matchup.

As he left the ice 15 minutes later, goaltending coach Mike Bales informed him that he would be the team's starter. 

"I just tried to approach it as a regular game and get ready for it," Fleury said.

Fleury, the Pens' all-time winningest goalie in franchise history, made 31 saves in the emergency start as Pittsburgh defeated Columbus, 3-1, to take a 1-0 series lead.

"It was fun," he said. "It's been a while. I was a little nervous in the beginning, maybe from not expecting it. … At the end it was a great feeling, a fun game to win."

Fleury replaced scheduled starter Matt Murray, who suffered a lower-body injury during warmups. Fleury was challenged early as Pittsburgh was outshot dramatically in the opening period by a 16-3 count.

"Every save is important and every play matters," Fleury said. "When you can keep the score 0-0, that's a good feeling. You gain a little confidence from it."

But Fleury was zoned in from his first save 39 seconds into the game from Brandon Dubinsky to his final save on Scott Hartnell in the third period. 

And all along the way, with every glove save, the crowd responded with their boisterous "Fleury! Fleury! Fleury!" chants.

"The guys did a great job in front of me all game long," he said. "They blocked shots and took rebounds away."

That's typical Fleury. Deflecting the credit to his teammates. Never the braggart.

And they do deserve some credit. After allowing 16 shots in that first period, Pittsburgh surrendered just 16 shots over the final two periods of the game. The Pens blocked 22 shots in the game, and the vast majority of Columbus' scoring chances were from the perimeter and low quality.

"He's one of the most professional guys we know," center Nick Bonino said. "He didn't even blink. He went in there and made 31 saves for us. He was the first star of the game. He was awesome."

It's been a trying calendar year for Fleury. After suffering a concussion late in the regular season, he was supplanted as the team's starting netminder during the club's 2016 Stanley Cup title run by Murray. Fleury endured trade rumors throughout the 2016-17 regular season, ultimately remaining with Pittsburgh. And Fleury, who has typically started in over 60 games a season, was relegated to just 38 games played this year.

Despite the difficult circumstances, Fleury remained a consummate pro. He put team success ahead of his own desires, and acted as a mentor and friend to the 22-year-old Murray.

"He's a great goaltender. He's a terrific kid," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "He's a great competitor. He's a good pro. And he's a great teammate. That speaks volumes of his character. It was a difficult year for him, no question, but he's such a good person and pro, he handled it as well as anyone."

No one was happier to see Fleury have success than his teammates.

"I couldn't be happier for a better guy," defenseman Trevor Daley said. "There's a reason you call him 'dude.' He's the coolest dude around. We're so happy that he got this opportunity and he ran with it."

Because of his attitude during the year, the Pittsburgh chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association named Fleury the team's Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy nominee, awarded to the NHL player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game of hockey.

"There were some stressful moments during the season," Fleury admitted. "Sometimes I had to find ways to stay sharp without playing. Toward the end I thought I was getting a little better. I'm just trying to build on that."

Fleury owns the Pens' franchise records in wins (375), shutouts (44) and playoff shutouts (8). Tonight's contest was his 101st postseason appearance with the Pens, which ties Tom Barrasso for the most in club history.

And he proved once again whey he has been the backbone of the franchise since being drafted first overall in 2003.

"Fleury comes out of the bullpen and has a real good first period, made some timely saves," Sullivan said. "What can you say about his character and compete level? To step in and be as good as he was - he was key for us."

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