By Steve Keating
WINNIPEG (Reuters) - Winnipeg Jets fans were chanting Marc-Andre Fleury's name during Game One of the Western Conference Finals at Bell MTS Place on Saturday and the Vegas Golden Knights netminder prefers to think it is because they like him.
Jets fans did not just like Fleury's performance, they loved it, as Winnipeg pumped three goals past him before the midway point of the first period.
They went on to claim a convincing 4-2 victory and draw first blood in the best-of-seven series that will see one team advance to the Stanley Cup Finals against either the Tampa Bay Lightning or Washington Capitals.
"I do hear it (the noise), yeah for sure when they are yelling your name," a relaxed Fleury said on Sunday as the Golden Knights practiced ahead of Monday's Game Two. "I like to think they like me a lot, they are yelling my name so much."
Fleury of course is well aware the choruses of "Fleurrrrry, Fleurrry" are not meant to compliment, but rather to rattle the netminder, who despite three Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins has acquired a reputation for not always producing his best in the postseason.
Partly due to that, Fleury was considered expendable and left unprotected by the Penguins in the expansion draft.
Vegas did not hesitate in plucking "the Flower" from the scrap heap and Fleury rewarded the upstart Golden Knights with one of the best regular seasons of his career, carrying his team to the top of the Pacific division standings.
Fleury's stellar play during the first two rounds of the postseason that featured series wins over the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks put him firmly in the Conn Smythe trophy discussion as the playoffs' most valuable player.
His .951 save percentage coming into the West Finals was the best in NHL history for a goalie with at least 10 playoff starts but he has also surrendered three or more goals in five of his last six contests.
Despite the Game One wobble Fleury remains key to the Golden Knights success and their hopes of capping what has already been a remarkable debut by becoming the first expansion team in a major North American professional sports league to claim a championship on their first try.
Such is the confidence that the Golden Knights have in Fleury that coach Gerard Gallant never considered pulling his starting netminder and expects him to be back at his best for Game Two.
"He's played real good hockey for us," said Gallant without hesitation. "He’s the best goalie in the playoffs as far as I’m concerned and he will be."
For Fleury this is nothing he has not dealt with many times in his 14-year career and he is sure it will happen again.
"I’ve been through it before on both the good side and the bad side," shrugged Fleury. "We’ll put it behind us, forget about it and move on."
(Editing by Toby Davis)