What a whirlwind the past year has been professionally for Marc-Andre Fleury.
The veteran has been humbled with a heavy dose of patience. For the former kid thrust into the NHL at age 18 back in 2003, it truly was uncharted territory over the last year to watch as Matt Murray backstopped the Penguins to a Stanley Cup in 2016, with nothing for Fleury to do but don a baseball cap from the bench, bite his lip and be happy for his brothers who were involved.
The concussion suffered by Fleury on March 31st 2016 was the worst of timing possible, his second of the season and just weeks before the playoffs. It was quite a shame because you could argue 2015-16 was the finest season of Fleury's career - he's won more games in other seasons but his numbers in GAA (2.29) and save percentage (.921%) were personal season-bests.
It was cruel timing for a guy finally looking to exorcise those playoff demons once and for all. Patience would come into play.
Wally Pipp from the Yankees was 32 years old in 1925 (same age MAF was in 2016) and Pipp never got a chance to get his job back from the talented youngster named Lou Gehrig who replaced him. Pipp was traded off the following season. Fortunately for Pittsburgh neither management nor Fleury pushed terribly hard to send the modern day player out of town.
Maybe Fleury's Pittsburgh career would have ended in a whimper too, but then the strangest thing happened. The Penguins goalie situation in 2017 ended up happening the exact same as 2016, just totally in reverse.
This spring it was Murray, fully installed as the starter, cruising towards the playoffs with better stats (.923 save%) in his first full NHL season than Fleury had in a career. But the unexpected happened, it's believed Murray may have suffered an injury in the last week of the season in a game against New Jersey. When Murray couldn't loosen up pain-free for Game 1 of the playoffs the Pens had to look back in Fleury's direction.
The franchise-goalie-turned-backup was right back where he deserved to have been 12 months earlier; in the crease for a Penguins playoff run.
Who was on the ice for Fleury's first playoff series, staring him down as they sang the anthem? No less than Sergei Bobrovsky, the presumptive Vezina winner with huge regular season stats (41-17-5, .931%, 2.06 GAA). Fleury was up to the challenge stopping 70 of 72 shots in the first two games of the series, pushing Pittsburgh to a 2-0 series lead. They would advance in 5 games, with Fleury playing significantly better than Bobrovsky.
Fleury's reward? Last year's Vezina winner (and a finalist this year) in Braden Holtby and the #1 team in the league during the regular season in the Capitals. Fleury's again been up to the challenge stopping 67 of 71 shots in the first to games of the series, again both Penguins wins and again largely due to their goalie.
The Marc-Andre Fleury story of the last 12 months may be described best as patience. For the player to have to watch another due his job. For a coach and management staff to stick with the vet as a backup as they plan and consider for the future.
And for Fleury the patience was finally rewarded and he may just get to write the story that he could have written last year as a Penguins playoff goaltender again. The Caps aren't but half defeated and there's still way too far to go to spell out the fairytale ending to the story that any Pens fan is imagining now..
For that, we'll just have to be a little patient.