Marc-Andre Fleury, the most impactful player in the short history of the Vegas Golden Knights, this weekend will start the highest-profile regular-season game they have played.
“He deserves to be starting this game,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said.
Fleury will lead the Golden Knights onto the ice for the Bridgestone NHL Outdoors Saturday against the Colorado Avalanche at Edgewood Tahoe Resort in Stateline, Nevada (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN1, SN, TVAS). It’s the first outdoor game for the Golden Knights, and the goalie who started their first regular-season, Stanley Cup Playoff and Stanley Cup Final games will be in the net.
Fleury has started 164 of the Golden Knights’ 249 regular-season games and has 98 of their 143 wins since they began play in the 2017-18 season, when they reached the Final.
“His impact to this franchise from the day that they had the [2017 NHL] Expansion Draft has been immeasurable,” DeBoer said of the 36-year-old, who is in his 17th NHL season and won the Stanley Cup three times with the Pittsburgh Penguins (2009, 2016, 2017). “I think he has the perspective. A lot of guys don’t realize they’re in the twilight of their career or tend to ignore it, and maybe don’t look back and appreciate moments as much, but in talking to him I think he has that recognition and appreciation in the moment that this is a special game and a special day.”
Fleury (7-2-0) has a 1.56 goals-against average and .937 save percentage this season, ranking first and second in the NHL among goalies with five or more starts. He has started five straight games with Robin Lehner sidelined because of an upper-body injury and is 3-2-0 with one shutout, a 1.81 GAA and .931 save percentage. Fleury allowed three goals on 55 shots (.945 save percentage) in back-to-back games against Colorado on Sunday and Tuesday.
“This is a steppingstone for our organization, and I think we’re starting to be known around the League as a destination place,” Golden Knights captain Mark Stone said. “Everybody wants to play for Vegas. He was part of the reasoning and one of the main reasons of creating that culture. He’s excited to play. … He’s played incredible.”
Fleury has played two NHL outdoor games, both for the Penguins: the 2011 NHL Winter Classic, a 3-1 loss to the Washington Capitals at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh; and the 2014 NHL Stadium Series, a 5-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks at Soldier Field in Chicago.
This game is not solely about Fleury or his start in Vegas’ first signature regular-season game.
It’s more about the scene, the picturesque setting, the first time the NHL will play a game on a golf course with Mother Nature’s beauty taking the place of fans because of the coronavirus pandemic. The previous 30 NHL outdoor games had a combined 1,622,081 fans in attendance.
This event, which will conclude the next day with the Philadelphia Flyers facing the Boston Bruins in the Honda NHL Outdoors Sunday (2 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, SN1, TVAS) is made for TV, with Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada in the background.
“The surroundings speak for themselves,” Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “You can see that in pictures, but it still doesn’t really do it justice. Once you’re out on that ice, it’s probably the purest form of hockey.”
On Saturday, the purity will be bottled into a game between two teams that have shown this week how good they can be and how close they are in the Honda West Division.
Vegas and Colorado were picked by many to finish 1-2 in the division, in either order. The Golden Knights have played 14 games, the Avalanche 13, and they’re first and second in points percentage in the West. Vegas (10-3-1) is at .750, Colorado (8-4-1) at .654.
The Golden Knights defeated the Avalanche 1-0 at home Sunday. Two nights later on the same ice, Colorado won 3-2 on Nazem Kadri‘s goal with 41 seconds left in the third period.
The shots on goal in the two games were 55-53 in Colorado’s favor. The total shot attempts were 120-112 in Vegas’ favor.
“They were two hard-fought games, and I think you saw a little bit of everything, the speed and the talent of both teams, some great goaltending in both games,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “We still have two more against them (in a four-game set that ends at Colorado on Monday) and this one is obviously in a great setting.”
The Golden Knights got healthier Tuesday with the return of defenseman Shea Theodore, who missed three games with an upper-body injury.
On Saturday, Landeskog and defenseman Samuel Girard are expected to return, and defenseman Cale Makar will be a game-time decision. Landeskog, a forward, and Girard missed the two games against Vegas while on the NHL COVID-19 protocol list. Makar was out with an upper-body injury.
“They’re getting their captain back in the lineup and he brings leadership, brings skill, brings grit as an all-around player, and Makar is one of the best defensemen in the League,” Stone said. “So, obviously, you’re going to have to key on those guys a little bit more. … They’re going to get a jump from that.”
Colorado center Nathan MacKinnon said the Avalanche getting healthy should give an even better indication of how the teams match up, how close they are and maybe who has the edge.
“They’re a really tough team to play against,” MacKinnon said. “They have high-end skill. There’s no weaknesses. I’m sure we’ll play them sometime in the playoffs and it’s going to be a tough series.”