In the most anticipated game of the year, Marc-Andre Fleury returned home with his new team, the Last Vegas Golden Knights, and sitting in a familiar position or a team he minds the nets for.
Near the top of the NHL standings.
Flower and the rest of his Vegas Knights teammates strolled into town the hot and attractive team this season, having eaten the Washington Capitals on Sunday it was a test the Pittsburgh Penguins needed to pass.
Take out all of the emotion of the evening and the Penguins just needed to get two points on the evening to keep pace at the top of the division after dropping 3-1 decision to New Jersey on Saturday night.
The 5-4 win on Tuesday at PPG Paints Arena allowed the Penguins to jump back over the Devils into second place in the Metro and keep pace with the Capitals, who beat the Columbus Blue Jackets Tuesday as well.
But it not just another game against another opponent.
This was the favorite son returning home for the first time since moving out. The 18-year-old boy who turned into a man over the years and before our very eyes. And even though there were times he drove you nuts or frustrated you, you watched as he remained the epitome of class and grace, even when he would have been excused to let it slip.
The franchise leader in nearly every goaltending category and a teammate who is revered and adored in Pittsburgh and across the hockey world.
Three-time Stanley Cup Champion.
Two-time Penguins MVP.
One incredible goaltender and human being.
Thank you for everything, Flower. pic.twitter.com/sXSFwmmUeP
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 7, 2018
With the Knights up 1-0 thanks to a William Karlsson power play goal at 2:09 of the first, the tribute happened and all of the months of emotion and goodbyes came in waves. The first TV timeout set the scene for the last chance before all parties could and should move on.
And make no mistake, it was noticed by the man of the hour;
Fleury on the response by the fans: "“It was just amazing, the support I’ve gotten over the years is just incredible. I thank everybody for all these years and once again showing up tonight with such great support.” -SK
— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) February 7, 2018
Fleury came to play, and he did so very well from the opening moments when he stopped Sidney Crosby on a redirect in front. He also made a dynamic save on Jake Guentzel who raced in alone on Flower with speed. But Fleury stayed with the forehand-backhand deke and made the stretched out save.
A little luck came into play, as Phil Kessel would pound the crossbar with a wrist shot. Fleury would give the red iron the customary love at the next stop in play.
When James Neal found a loose puck in front of that other goalie (what’s his name? Oh Matt Murray that’s right, back-to-back Stanley Cup winner) and beat him through traffic, it was 2-0 in favor of Vegas early in the second.
It was also time for the feel-good stories to go away.
Pittsburgh needed a spark, as they were in danger of being cheered to a loss by their own fans, perhaps a power play that looked less than pedestrian in their first two chances. The spark finally came from an unexpected source: Ryan Reaves
After some great puck pressure and a forced turnover from Riley Sheahan, Reaves would walk in from the near wing and beat Fleury over the left pad and under the glove to cut the lead to one with just under half of the game remaining.
Six minutes later and after another failed power play, another unlikely source would tie the game as Ian Cole would find room in the slot and tie it up.
The noise would only get louder as Jake Guentzel would get his revenge just over a minute later when he took a pass at the top of the near circle and rifled a quick half-slapper through some more traffic to put Pittsburgh into their first lead.
A heavily conflicted crowd now realized their team wasn’t messing around anymore and roared their approval.
As the third period came around, it would be Evgeni Malkin who decided to will his team to a win on this night.
Just over three minutes in, Malkin would take a pass from Phil Kessel on a two-on-one with the Knights defenseman working a terribly slow change. Malkin would wait half a second before beating Fleury from the hash marks in the slot to double the Pittsburgh lead at 4-2.
From there, Malkin on his next shift would dominate the puck and help the Penguins intros play for an extended period of time beforehand Carl Hagelin teamed up for a pretty passing play that saw the puck end up on Phil Kessel’s stick cutting to Fleury’s back post. Kessel easily tucked in his 24th goal of the season.
With just under 14 minutes to play it looked like Fleury had a chance to be pulled on his return home, a situation no one could have wished for. His defense often left him to hang out to dry, much like the 2012 version of his old team.
But the Golden Knights fought back.
Goals by Carpenter and Jonathan Marchessault six minutes apart pulled the Sin City skaters back within one with eight minutes to go. Marchessault’s shot from an extreme angle by the goal line was just filthy, and he celebrated accordingly as he whooped and hollered like he won the Stanley Cup to be heard over everything.
But the storybook ending for the returning hero was not meant to be on this night. The Penguins ran out the clock even as Bryan rust hit the iron on another empty net ugh like the Caps game last Friday. Rust smiled and shook his head as he skated to the bench.
Time would run out and the crowd stood and cheered. In one last act on behalf of the franchise, the Penguins made Fleury the #3 star of the game to send him away with one final ovation.
Matt Murray would make 21 saves and made a key stop on a Knights breakaway with the score 2-0 Vegas at the time. Had it went 3-0 this night, it would probably have had a different feel.
The Penguins finished 0-5 on the power play that incluVegasages taking three delay of game calls for pucks over the glass. It felt like Game Six against the Capitals a couple of years ago when the Penguins did the same at an unbelievably frustrating clip.
Vegas would finish 1-for-3.
The teams would finish the season series winning one game a piece. Murray and Fleury would each allow six goals in those games. A fitting stalemate for two outstanding netminders.
Sidney Crosby would pick up two more assists as he continues to be a machine in churning out points along with Malkin and Kessel.
Malkin’s 30-goal (and counting) season is his sixth season such campaign as he becomes the fifth player in Penguins history to accomplish the task.
Tom Kuhnhackl and Carter Rowney both left the game with injuries and did not return. Coach Sullivan said they would be further evaluated. Add to those two, already having Hornqvist and Conor Sheary out week-to-week the situation at forward will probably look a lot more Wilkes Barre-ish in the coming days.
The rate the three big guns are playing it may not matter who they have with them.
The Penguins now head out to take on a couple of tough Western teams as they visit Dallas on Friday night before heading to St. Louis on Sunday.
Stay tuned here at Pittsburgh Sports Castle as we will have all of your coverage.
Thanks for reading, and again…