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Marc-Andre Fleury is the perfect contradiction for the Golden Knights

The goalie plays loudly and speaks softly, with just enough weirdness to be perfect for this Vegas team.

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Marc-Andre Fleury USA TODAY Sports (SB Nation illustration)

The Vegas Golden Knights’ arrival in the Stanley Cup Final, which starts Monday, defies any one explanation. But the one that gets closest is Marc-Andre Fleury.

The 33-year-old is having what could be the best goaltending playoff run in history. He led the Knights’ sprint through the Western Conference playoffs, 12 wins in 15 games. He enters the Cup Final with a .947 playoff save percentage and 1.68 goals-against average. Here is the full list of goalies, in the NHL’s century-long history, who have finished a playoff run this long with both a save percentage and goals-against rate that good: Nobody.

Drop that save percentage threshold down a few points, and Fleury has just a little bit of company: 2003 Jean-Sebastian Giguere and 2012 Jonathan Quick. Giguere was so good for the Mighty Ducks that he won playoff MVP without winning the Cup. In his year, Quick won both with the Kings.

That Fleury is doing this now — on the wrong side of 30, on an expansion team, in his first year after leaving the two-time defending champion Penguins — is flatly weird.

But it’s also fitting. The Knights are a walking, skating refutation of everything we thought an expansion team could be. Fleury has been confounding for years. That this brilliant oddball of a goalie has pulled off this run for this team, at this time, is perfect.

Fleury is a clash of styles. He has the talent and polish of a No. 1 overall pick, but his improvisational style makes him goaltending’s best thrill ride.

Fleury’s nickname is the English translation of his French last name: Flower.

The label was firmly affixed to him not long after he arrived in Pittsburgh for brief NHL action as a 19-year-old in 2003. That was a few months after the moribund Penguins traded up to draft him first overall. For most of his career, he’s had a flower somewhere on his mask. The name works, not just because it’s literally his name, but because Fleury’s goaltending can be beautiful. When he’s playing well, like he is now, he’s a technician, but he’s also operating off book and making acrobatic saves while he looks like he’s flailing.

He slides around his crease more smoothly than most goalies, and he can contort himself like Gumby in one moment and snap back into perfect form the next. Or he can operate those steps in reverse, making a technically sound save on an initial shot and then ad-libbing it to stop a rebound chance. That’s how he sealed his first Cup win, in 2009.

Fleury tried to push across his crease when Nicklas Lidstrom approached a loose puck just to his right, with a chance to force a Game 7 overtime. The ice wasn’t fresh, though, and Fleury didn’t get all the way across to meet the Hall of Famer. So Fleury ditched his feet to dive horizontally after Lidstrom’s buzzer-beating shot attempt, and he stopped it.

Fleury is a fearless goalie. That often works in his favor, and it almost always has in these Vegas playoffs. Other times, it’s burned him. His Team Canada lost the 2004 World Junior Championship when Fleury sprang out of his crease to sweep a puck away from danger but shot it off his own defenseman and into the net, handing a gold medal to the United States.

Those plays are foundational moments in Fleury’s career — one where his appetite for playing aggressively made sure he won a championship, another where it cost him one. It looks gorgeous when it works. It looks grisly when it doesn’t. This year, it’s worked.

Fleury is a clash of personalities, too. While he’s undeniably loud on the ice, he’s one of the sport’s most soft-spoken and beloved players off it.

When he’s on the ice, Fleury bursts with color. For the first few seasons of his career, that was a literal statement. He wore obnoxiously bright yellow pads that made him stand out even before the puck dropped and you watched him throw himself after it all night.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Buffalo Sabres Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images

Fleury is a pragmatist. He ditched the yellow pillows a few years into his career, after an Ottawa optometrist told him the pads were easy for shooters’ eyes to pick up.

But he’s kept some personal zest all these years, as he’s gone from a teenaged pro to an elder statesman. In 2010, HBO’s cameras picked him up sneaking into some younger teammates’ hotel room and moving all of their furniture, beds included, to a hallway. While he was shutting down the Winnipeg Jets in this spring’s Western Conference Final, Fleury made time to tickle the Jets’ captain’s ear while he was in a scuffle with Fleury’s teammates.

Fleury was sheepish when he found out that was all on TV.

He’s an outlandishly nice guy, according to every teammate who’s ever spoken publicly about him and every media member who’s spent time covering his teams. Lots of people have Fleury stories. Mine: When I was 8 or 9 and Fleury was 18 or 19, he spent five minutes helping me work on skating at a Penguins hockey camp in Pittsburgh’s South Hills: “Push.” In still-limited English, he made similar time for dozens of others.

Fleury and the author, as younger people.

It’s not hard for athletes to be nice to kids. Fleury is nicer than most. He’s continued to be nice in Las Vegas, reserving special treatment for kids who really need it. His first stop after one playoff win was to sit with the children of a Canadian junior coach who’d died weeks earlier in a horrific bus crash.

He’s a natural with younger fans, probably because he was about their age when he became an NHL starter for the first time.

Fleury’s on-ice highs and lows with the Penguins are well documented. After the ‘09 Cup win that culminated with his save on Lidstrom, he spent about a half-decade playing routinely terrible goal during the playoffs. His struggles likely cost the Penguins another title or two. He sat on the bench throughout their 2016 run to the championship, then played into the third round before the younger Matt Murray re-replaced him in 2017’s run.

Pittsburgh wasn’t as good to Fleury during his down years as he was to Pittsburgh. But he left town on top, a three-time champ whom everybody adored. When everyone knew he was about to leave the Penguins for Vegas by way of June 2017’s expansion draft, hundreds of people lined up for hours to meet him at a Dick’s and send him off. When he brought Vegas back to Western Pennsylvania in the winter, he got a hero’s welcome and cried on the ice.

Fleury’s play has always been louder than his voice.

An exchange he had with an NBC reporter seconds after he stopped 31 of 32 shots in a clinching Game 5 against Winnipeg, the game that sent Vegas to the Final:

NBC: You’ve played some great hockey in your career. Three Stanley Cups. But is this the best that Marc-Andre Fleury has ever played.

Fleury: I don’t know. I think you’re always as good as your team. The guys in front of me have been great, and they have been helping me a lot, and it’s been a lot of fun.

Fleury never breaks character. That character is one of the biggest reasons the inaugural Golden Knights are as likable as they are good.