LAS VEGAS — Blackhawks goalie Marc-Andre Fleury already has experienced so many momentous games this season that the significance of his return to Vegas almost was forgotten until this week.
But then Fleury walked into the Hawks’ hotel on the south end of the Strip late Thursday night and felt the nostalgia of this second-home homecoming filling his heart.
“[When we] got in late last night, the staff at the hotel was nice and welcoming,” Fleury said after practice Friday at T-Mobile Arena. “And it’s weird to come to the rink and be in this locker room, be on the other side.
“The whole time was very special — Before the game, on the bench, going through my routine in the empty arena, and in warmups, having so many people close to the glass with signs and my jerseys and stuff,” he then said Saturday after making 30 saves in the Hawks’ 2-1 win over the Golden Knights. “It was awesome.”
Fleury, 37, was somewhat lucky the timing worked out to allow him to face the Knights. After all, he was less than a week removed from returning from COVID-19.
He ended up missing only two games — only one of which he likely would have started — with the infection he picked up over the holiday break. And while he had it, his symptoms were mild, basically just a runny nose.
But after returning to the ice, Fleury said he felt the effects far more than expected.
“Coming back and skating was harder on the lungs, tougher to breathe,” he said. “At first, I pretty much was always out of breath trying to move around. [The] first game back against Colorado, that one wasn’t easy.”
Fleury’s performance might have been affected, too, as he allowed nine goals on 58 shots against the Avalanche and Coyotes — an uncharacteristic .845 save percentage. He felt ‘‘a little better’’ breathing-wise against the Coyotes, however, and expects the problem to go away over time.
Those COVID complications are just the latest speed bump in what has been a testing season for Fleury, who hasn’t been on a team this bad in a long time. Unless he’s dealt to a contender before the trade deadline in March, his 15-year playoff streak almost certainly will end in 2022.
“It’s been hard,’’ he admitted. ‘‘Everybody expected more out of us this season, myself included. It’s been frustrating sometimes to lose so much.
“I still love playing goalie, still love diving around, hanging out with the guys at the rink, on the road, in practice, here and there. That’s still a fun part of the game. But winning would make things definitely more fun, too.”
Nonetheless, he has fully adopted the Hawks as his team. And that means he has left behind any bitterness about his poorly communicated, involuntary departure from the Knights last summer.
He has followed the Knights as much as the Hawks’ schedule has allowed this season, even watching some games on TV. Their roster hasn’t changed much since last season, and six players from the inaugural 2017-18 Stanley Cup finalist team — Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, William Carrier, Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb — remain, giving Fleury great familiarity with many of the shooters he faced Saturday.
He spoke particularly about the sentimentality of being on the ice against Marchessault, whom he lovingly described as “a little guy [with] a big mouth.”
And despite the losses, Fleury’s brief tenure with the Hawks also has been dotted with some lofty highs. In fact, having already experienced his latest return to Pittsburgh on Oct. 16, his 500th career victory in Montreal on Dec. 9 and the ceremony to honor that milestone in Chicago on Dec. 15, Fleury almost has been desensitized to emotional nights.
Nothing, however, could keep the emotions at bay Saturday.
“In a way, you want to keep it business and stay serious and just worry about winning the game,” he said in anticipation. “On the other hand, I had such a great time here, [made] many good memories. It might be hard to just stay ice-cold.”