Behind the scenes of Marc-Andre Fleury’s emotional night in Wild’s win

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ST. PAUL, Minn. —  Marc-Andre Fleury was nervous for Friday’s start, and considering he’s getting “softer and softer” over the years, he knew it’d be emotional.

This was a night all about him. The Minnesota Wild were honoring the future Hall of Famer for his 1,000 career games (and 552 wins, No. 2 all-time); his good friends and former Pittsburgh Penguins teammates were in town, so was his family. Fleury figured there’d be gifts (a collage painting from the Penguins, a silver stick and a $5,000 check from the Wild for his favorite charity, the American Indian Family Center). The video tribute was a given, and Fleury laughed seeing his old yellow pads from his Pittsburgh days when he was a teenage, prized, No. 1 pick. Now he’s a 39-year-old. “It’s crazy how time just goes by so quick,” he said.

But then came the surprise, which got Fleury choked up.

His three children, Estelle, 10, Scarlett, 8, and James, 4, had combined to read the lineup card minutes earlier in the Wild dressing room, replacing Fleury’s name with “the best dad ever.”  They ended the tribute video on the giant video screen by reading separate heartfelt messages.

“You’ve inspired me,” Scarlett said.

Estelle brought up a lucky tie she gave her dad for Christmas.

“It’s not the tie that’s magical,” she said. “It’s you.”

“I’m proud of you dad,” James said. “You’re the best.”

“Je t’aime,” Estelle added, an “I love you” in French.

There weren’t many dry eyes in the Xcel Energy Center after that, even the man behind the mask.

“That’s what gets me,” Fleury said.

Then Fleury’s family watched him deliver a fitting, fantastic performance to lift the Wild to a 3-2 victory over Pittsburgh. The final 110-second flurry was one of the most exciting moments in this building all year, with Fleury diving across the crease to make key saves in a six-on-four Penguins attack. Four future Pittsburgh Hall of Famers kept firing, and either Fleury, or his teammates, like Brock Faber, did double-pad stack stops to preserve the heart-thumping victory. The sellout crowd chanted Fleury’s name as the final seconds ticked away and when he came out as the game’s first star.

“That was vintage Flower,” Wild coach John Hynes said. “The competitiveness that he has, the guys diving in front of him, his second effort on plays. That’s where he’s an inspiration. Everyone talks about how good a person he is and teammate he is, but when you watch his competitiveness in those situations, it’s inspirational. When you look at the highlights even in his ceremony and take that last minute and a half, you could just put those clips on the video and it looks the same.

“He’s got a new video now.”

Several teammates wore flower-printed ties, with fellow goaltender Filip Gustavsson donning a flower-filled wreath on his head. In warmups, every Wild player had Fleury and his No. 29 on their backs, offering him a solo lap typically done for rookies. His mother, France, sister, Marylène, wife, Véronique, and three kids were at his side during the pregame ceremony, with his number of wins (552) presented in flower form. Fleury didn’t have time to get caught up in emotions as the Wild took a four-minute double minor penalty 25 seconds in. He hadn’t faced a game-like shot in nearly a month and now had to kill off a four-minute power play with four future Hall of Famers on the other side.

But how the Wild rallied around Fleury in that stretch was symbolic for the rest of the game. Fleury made three saves in the first two minutes, and his teammates played lockdown defense the rest of it. Minnesota, still fighting for its playoff life, had lacked the needed intensity at times in recent games, but this Fleury milestone game seemed to snap the Wild back into focus.

“We can’t lose in a night like this,” Kirill Kaprizov said.

“We weren’t losing that one,” Matt Boldy said.

Hynes had lamented “too many passengers” in Wednesday’s 2-1 win over the worst-in-the-NHL Chicago Blackhawks, and it seemed directed at the Wild’s top forwards. Boldy and Kaprizov were put on the same line Friday, centered by Joel Eriksson Ek, and both scored big-time goals (Boldy the first one midway through the first and Kaprizov the game winner midway through the third). Boldy had 13 shot attempts, while Kaprizov had nine.

“There weren’t any passengers tonight,” Boldy said.

There was plenty of drama, however. Twice, the Penguins overcame a one-goal deficit, with Sidney Crosby’s power-play goal one minute into the third tying the game at 2-2. For a Wild team that had blown one-goal, third-period leads in crushing, back-to-back losses before the bye week, it could ill afford to cough up another one. Fleury made sure the Wild didn’t. He kept making key saves, 34 in all, including one in the second with major flair, flipping the puck in the air twice with his stick.

The crowd chanted: “FLEURY! FLEURY!”

“He made some big saves,” Crosby said. “Obviously, we pushed pretty hard there late. You always know that he’s going to compete and battle.”

Kaprizov’s winning goal, pouncing on a loose puck in the left circle, was no sure thing. The Penguins, convinced the puck was tipped into the netting by a high stick before it got to Kaprizov, went for a challenge. For seven minutes, the sellout crowd seemed to be losing their minds, booing several times. Hynes said they remained confident while watching replays of all angles from the bench.

“Usually with those ones, the longer they go, the better they are because it’s not obviously clear cut,” Zach Bogosian said.

To some, it was.

“Puck hit the net,” Crosby said.

“Every player on the ice saw it,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “Even their players.”

The Penguins had one final push and had a golden opportunity when Jonas Brodin took a high-sticking penalty with 1 minute, 50 seconds left. But Fleury came through with a lot of help from his teammates. Jake Middleton, who took that double minor on the game’s first shift, started it off with a big block on Evgeni Malkin. After a Fleury save on Malkin, Brandon Duhaime and Faber each blocked a shot.

“I think Brandon would have blocked that with his face if he needed to,” Boldy said.

Fleury, in rare form, was sprawling and jumping all over the crease, throwing every part of his body at shots, making three more stops on Malkin and another on Crosby. Together, they were part of the core four for three Penguins Cups, along with Kris Letang. Now, Fleury was standing in their way of a crucial victory. Teammates marveled from the bench, on the edge of their seats. “That guy, it feels like he has energy, that never-ending energy and moves everywhere, competing all the time,” Gustavsson said. “It’s really like he gives it to me, like a virus. He’s doing it, I have to, too. He makes me better.”

One of the biggest saves of the night came with 40 seconds left by Faber, the sensational rookie and Calder Trophy candidate. Faber, who played the final 2:16 (Middleton the final 1:50) jumped in front of what appeared to be a wide-open net for Erik Karlsson on the back post. Faber got enough of the shot with his skate, though joked after, “I’ll give it to Flower.”

“That backdoor blocker side? Fabes, all him,” Fleury said. “The guys at the end, a lot of blocked shots. Fun to watch them sliding. Two pad stack there, two pad stack there. It’s fun to watch and fun to win that way, too.”

The Wild’s win pulled them to within 3 points of the St. Louis Blues for the final wild-card spot, but there are still three teams between them, and St. Louis has two games in hand. How Minnesota does in the next few weeks could go a long way in determining Fleury’s fate here. Fleury, in the final year of his contract (and maybe his career), has a full no-move clause. So everything is up to him whether he’d consider getting traded to a playoff contender if the Wild fall out of the race. That’s a conversation president and GM Bill Guerin, a former Fleury teammate, is expected to have if it gets that far.

But Fleury seems as determined to continue his streak of 17 straight seasons in the playoffs in the same Wild sweater he wore Friday. He said he appreciated the organization making this night so special for him and his family. Fleury, when given the player of the game Viking helmet postgame, thanked his teammates and said, “I’ll remember this one for a long time.”

Fleury said he didn’t wear the lucky tie Estelle gave him for Christmas. “She said, ‘You don’t have to wear it tonight.’”

Friday’s magic? It was all Fleury. And his kids got to soak it all in.

“Hopefully they can remember me playing hockey and people cheering for me, for my team and for our name,” Fleury said. “I think it means a lot. Soon, I’ll be on the couch not doing much so hopefully they can remember this time where I was playing hockey.”

(Photo: Matt Blewett / USA Today)

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