July 20, 2018

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Flower is growing on his Vegas teammates

(AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)</p><p>Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's teammates admire his positive disposition as much as his premier puckstopping abilities.</p>

(AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's teammates admire his positive disposition as much as his premier puckstopping abilities.

He was beloved in Pittsburgh and he's become a folk hero in Las Vegas.

Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Penguins, appears to have raised his game with the expansion Golden Knights. His reputation as a prime-time player is matched only by the most cheerful demeanor in the sport. He seems to be smiling most of the time.

Life is good for the 33-year-old puckstopper, who is an early favourite for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL's post-season MVP.

And with his numbers, who's to argue? His 8-2 playoff record, 1.53 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage spell trouble for the Winnipeg Jets, who face the Golden Knights in Game 1 of the NHL's Western Conference final Saturday night.

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He was beloved in Pittsburgh and he's become a folk hero in Las Vegas.

Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Penguins, appears to have raised his game with the expansion Golden Knights. His reputation as a prime-time player is matched only by the most cheerful demeanor in the sport. He seems to be smiling most of the time.

Life is good for the 33-year-old puckstopper, who is an early favourite for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL's post-season MVP.

And with his numbers, who's to argue? His 8-2 playoff record, 1.53 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage spell trouble for the Winnipeg Jets, who face the Golden Knights in Game 1 of the NHL's Western Conference final Saturday night.

"He’s a great guy. He’s such a good guy you sometimes talk more of the person than you do how good of a goalie he is," said veteran Vegas left-winger James Neal. "For us, we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have him. Every night he’s making huge saves for us at the right time.

"For a guy who’s had a great career and won so many Stanley Cups, he still has something to prove and wants to be better each day. Guys see that, especially the younger guys and it builds a lot of character in our room."

Fleury was limited by a concussion to 46 appearances in the regular season but he's making up for lost time on the Knights' improbably run the conference final. And he's still working to refine his game.

"I tried a little different things," said Fleury. "Maybe one technical thing that’s changed, but for the most part of it, it was just about getting ready, the mental aspect of it," said Fleury. "Sometimes like it feels like you’re thinking too much about how much you should practise before the game, every morning, and being fine for games if I don’t skate every day."

Neal said it's impossible not to be affected by Fleury's enthusiasm.

"He hasn’t changed at all. He’s the same guy every single day he comes to work," said Neal, who was his teammate in Pittsburgh for three seasons beginning in 2010-11. "Loves being around the team, loves playing hockey.

"I think he maybe had something a little bit more to prove this year after the last couple years. He’s such a great goalie, so maybe it’s tough on him not playing and being that No. 1 guy. So to come here, he’s taken our team, I think you’ve seen what he’s done. He’s there every night making the big saves. He’s been awesome."

Another old pro, 36-year-old blue-liner Deryk Engelland, believes the Knights are not the same team without him.

"He’s the backbone to our team," said Engelland. "On and off the ice, he’s a phenomenal goalie. In the locker room, he’s an even better person. A great leader, a fun guy to be around. He always brings excitement to the rink every day."

Crucial to the Golden Knights success will be how well Fleury and Co. are able to contain Winnipeg's top unit of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor. The trio has combined for 16 goals and 39 points in 12 playoff games so far.

"They’re good. They’re obviously one of the best lines out there," said Fleury. "They’ve been good on the power play also, getting a lot of points there. Staying out of the box is probably the main thing so we don’t give them too many opportunities on the power play. For the game, if we keep playing well as a team, doing what the coach wants us to, with some speed and doing everybody doing their job in our zone, we should be in good shape."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Sports Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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