Marc-Andre Fleury is about to get a crash course in life in the NHL.
The No. 1 overall draft pick will make his debut in goal when the Penguins open the season against the Los Angeles Kings.
Fleury, who won’t turn 19 until late November, learned only after practice Thursday he would be the opening night goalie, adding to what has been a whirlwind week. He didn’t reach contract terms until Monday, then needed two days to obtain a work visa and return to Pittsburgh from Montreal.
Fleury acknowledged he might be “a little stressed,” and probably for good reason. A year ago, he was opening his third Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season with Cape Breton. Now he’ll be trying to stop skilled shooters such as the Kings’ Ziggy Palffy, Luc Robitaille and Jozef Stumpel.
“I’ll just have to try to play like I’m used to playing,” said Fleury, who starred for Canada in the world junior championships last season. “At first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make the team. I just wanted to do well in training camp. Now it’s the season, and I wasn’t expecting to play.”
The talent-thin Penguins are rebuilding after finishing with the NHL’s second-worst record last season, yet they had other goaltender options. Sebastien Caron, rewarded with a $3.2 million, four-year contract after playing well down the stretch as a rookie last season, will start Saturday night in Philadelphia.
Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk, who is making his NHL debut, felt it preferable that Fleury play before a supportive home crowd rather than in the hostile environment of Philadelphia. He also didn’t want to start Caron both nights.
Mario Lemieux, the Penguins’ owner-player and Fleury’s former landlord, also made his NHL debut without having any previous pro experience.
“It’s nerve-racking your first game, especially when you’re 18 years old, not really knowing what to expect in game situations,” Lemieux said Thursday. “We’ll try to relax him a little bit and, with all the talent he has, I’m sure he will be fine.”
Fleury has a chance to be the second-biggest attraction in Pittsburgh, next to Lemieux, who led the team with 91 points in just 67 games last season. The Penguins have been forced to jettison nearly all of their high-priced talent over the last few years, setting the stage for a youngster like Fleury to make a name for himself.
“I’ll just try to keep it simple and not worry about anything, just try to be my best,” Fleury said.
Fleury will likely be seeing an agitated group of Kings, after they dropped a 3-2 decision in Detroit on Thursday. Steve Yzerman scored with 1.7 seconds left in regulation to make a winner out of goaltender Dominik Hasek, who was making his return to the NHL after a year of retirement.
Roman Cechmanek made 35 saves for the Kings. He was acquired from Philadelphia in May for a 2004 second-round pick.
Kings captain Mattias Norstrom left the game with an injury early in the first period, and will miss at least two games. He was scheduled to fly back to Los Angeles on Friday.
“It’s something from the arm and shoulder and it’s burning down my arm,” Norstrom said. “I lost most of my strength. When we get me back to L.A., we’ll evaluate the injury and see what it is. I have no idea right now.”
The team expects Miller to return within the next three weeks from his broken wrist, but does not know when Allison and Deadmarsh will be able to play.
2002-03 STANDINGS: Kings - 78 points, 3rd place (tied), 33 PB, Pacific Division. Penguins - 65 points, 5th place, 43 PB, Atlantic Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Kings - Palffy and Eric Belanger, 1 goal; four tied with 1 assist; six tied with 1 point; Sean Avery, 6 PIM. Penguins (2002-03) - Lemieux, 28 goals, 63 assists and 91 points; Steve McKenna, 128 PIM.
2002-03 SPECIAL TEAMS: Kings - Power play: 14.6 percent (52 for 355), 18th in NHL. Penalty killing: 83.3 percent (310 for 372), 15th. Penguins - Power play: 18.3 percent (66 for 360), 7th. Penalty killing: 83.5 percent (294 for 352), 13th.
GOALTENDERS: Kings - Cechmanek (0-1-0, 0 SO, 3.00 GAA); Cristobal Huet (no record). Penguins - Fleury (no record); Caron (7-14-2, 2, 2.64 in 2002-03).
2002-03 SEASON SERIES: Kings, 2-0.
LAST MEETING: Feb. 25; Kings, 5-3. At Pittsburgh, Palffy and Bryan Smolinski each scored twice for Los Angeles. Lemieux had two goals for Pittsburgh.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Kings - 0-1-0-0 on the road; Penguins - 15-22-2-2 at home in 2002-03.