When the Penguins beat the Red Wings on Friday, there was one moment in the game that was particularly gratifying for me as a Penguin fan. It wasn’t just beating the Red Wings at the Joe or seeing Sidney Crosby hoist the Stanley Cup and Evgeni Malkin holding the Conn Smythe or Marian Hossa’s tears of unfathomable sorrow. It wasn’t seeing the joy on Mario Lemieux’s face when he finally got to kiss the Cup again or seeing Sergei Gonchar finally get to hold the best trophy in all of sports in the air. All of those moments were amazing, spine tingling moments that reminded me why I’m a sports fan, but none of them topped Marc-Andre Fleury diving across the crease to stop Niklas Lidstrom’s last second desperation shot like he was diving in front of a bullet bound for the Prime Minister of Canada.
On Saturday, October 10th, 2003, I walked from Duquesne to the Mellon Arena to wait in the Student Rush line for tickets to the Penguins’ opener. Everyone there that night already knew it was going to be a lost season for the Pens, but we all also wanted to see the guy that the Penguins had just drafted with the first pick in the draft only four months earlier. We’d all heard amazing things about Marc-Andre Fleury, who at 18 was only two months older than me, and my friends and I all wanted to see him play.
Fleury’s rookie season was an incredibly trying one for a young goalie, but his first start was electric. He made 46 saves against the Los Angeles Kings, including an amazing save on a one-timer (check this old school DK article about the save) and, if my memory serves me, a save on a penalty shot. As I walked out of Mellon Arena that night, I’d never heard of Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby was a mythical prodigy that I’d only read about in Sports Illustrated, the Pens were 5 1/2 years and seemingly a million light years away from a Stanley Cup, but I thought to myself, “Wow. Fleury is special. If we’re going to win a Cup again someday, he’s going to be a part of it.”
Fleury struggled over the rest of the season and was eventually sent back down to the AHL. In his second season, he was good but not great. The season after that, he had a great season but melted down against Ottawa in the playoffs. Then, he followed up a great playoff run with by allowing some disappointing soft goals against Detroit in the 2008 Final. This year, he was shaky against Washington and shaky in Detroit leading up to Game 7 and was gaining a rap as a goalie that couldn’t win a big game. Anyone that knows me, though, will tell you that I’ve always defended Fleury, and the reason for it lies in that first game that I saw way back in 2003. When Fleury made that huge save to preserve the lead and clinch the Cup on Friday, a huge rush of validation washed over me. All of the times I’d stuck up for the guy were worth it. I HAD seen something special on that night almost six years ago.
This sort of thing is exactly why I keep going as a Pirate fan. Fleury isn’t really my favorite player on the Penguins, but seeing him play in that first game is always going to be something I remember. We latch on to players now, and when things finally turn around it’s an even better feeling. After we traded for Andy LaRoche last year and he was terrible for two long months in a Pirate uniform, I tried to stick up for the guy. He didn’t make it easy with his even worse start this year, but every time he gets a hit in 2009, it feels like some kind of small personal victory for me, even if I don’t have anything to do with it.
Alternately, this is what makes trades like the McLouth trade so hard. We all latch on to these guys, hoping that each new batch of Pirates will be the ones that break the cycle and it’s more than a little heartbreaking when they don’t. But that’s the nature of being a Pirate fan; Al Martin becomes Jason Kendall becomes Brian Giles becomes Jason Bay becomes Nate McLouth becomes Andrew McCutchen, and the cycle will continue on until it’s broken. It’s not fair to McCutchen to say he’s definitely going to be the player that puts the Bucs back on the map, but watching him transition effortlessly to the big leagues, watching him change games with his speed, well, he’s something different than anything we’ve seen in a long time and he’s going to be here for a long time because despite what the tin-foil hat crowd will tell you, we control his rights for six years and it’s unfathomable that he’ll be traded in the next five years if he keeps performing.
When Marc-Andre Fleury arrived in Mellon Arena in 2003, only two of his teammates at the time (Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi) would hoist the Stanley Cup with him 5 1/2 years later, but his arrival signified a changing of the guard in the Penguins’ organization. Maybe, just maybe, we’ve got our own Fleury at PNC Park in Andrew McCutchen.