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A Thousand Times I've Fallen

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June 2016

Marc-Andre watches from the bench as the clock winds down to zero.

He jumps up like everyone else, flings himself over the boards like everyone else, takes his turn lifting the cup like everyone else. But he doesn’t deserve it like everyone else.

Back in the locker room with everyone screaming and celebrating, it’s easy to get lost in the emotion. His team won the Stanley Cup again. They did it together, and it’s easy to be happy.

Days later when he sees a picture of himself lifting the cup, it makes him cringe. He sees the look on his face and knows in that moment his time in Pittsburgh is coming to an end.

He puts his head in his hands, then gets up to pace around his home office. His thoughts race. What is he going to do? He doesn’t know how to be anything other than a Penguin.

He feels restless in a way he hasn’t since he was being called up and sent down to either Wilkes-Barre or Cape Breton like a yoyo. With the offseason looming, he needs to know where he stands.

Management can’t just trade him with his no-movement clause, but that doesn’t mean they can’t ask him to waive or buy out his contract. A knot begins forming in his stomach, so he tries to clear his head. This is not the train of thought he wanted to entertain the day before his second Stanley Cup parade.

‘It's not like you earned the Cup,’ his mind supplies helpfully. ‘One and a half lost games doesn’t make a Stanley Cup champion.’

Marc-Andre sits back down and runs his hands through his hair. If this is his reality now, he needs to rip off the band-aid and start figuring out what steps to take next.

He has absolutely no idea what to do.

~*~

June 2017

Marc-Andre has never quite felt this unique combination of unease, awkwardness, and fabricated excitement before. Once he steps onto the stage at the Expansion Draft, it only increases with the crowd’s reaction. Bill shakes his hand, then George, and Kathryn Tappen asks him how he feels about this moment.

How he feels? His mind buzzes with all the things he wants to say.

‘Like I’m leaving my friends, my city, everything I know for what’s likely to be a disaster of an expansion franchise? Like my hopes for ever winning another Stanley Cup are gone? That I just assumed I would retire a Penguin and the fact that I’m standing here on this stage in this jersey makes me want to vomit? That I won’t be able to help the Golden Knights in any way that matters?’

He chuckles uncomfortably into the mic. No, he can’t give her that answer. His years of media training have bred him better than that. Even if he does feel cast aside by the Penguins organization, he could never let the PR team down like that.

In the end, he has no idea what he says, he just hopes it sounded encouraging.

He avoids looking in the direction he knows Sid and Hags are sitting in the crowd. Instead, he looks up into the fans above, giving the best smile he can manage.

It feels like the biggest lie he’s ever told.

~*~

November 2016

“It’s a young man’s game now, isn’t it Marc?” Mike says, trying to sound casual. “The older I get, the younger the draft picks look.” He’s sitting behind his desk, having called Marc-Andre into his office after practice. After Marc-Andre’s most recent disaster that was the Minnesota game.

“Maybe,” Marc-Andre replies, looking down at his hands and frowning at what Mike is going to say.

“You’re an important part of this team, Marc. Everyone knows it. But our roles change as we get older and I don’t want you to think this is personal.”

“I never thought it was personal,” Marc-Andre lies, because how can it not be. He’s not needed in the way he foolishly thought he would be, and the thought stings behind his eyes. Matt is the future of this team, and Marc-Andre isn’t handling it well.

As he listens to Sully explain the new schedule for him and Matty, he can only nod mechanically and smile through pursed lips. He desperately wants out of this office, out of this moment, out of this life he’s suddenly leading.

“Look, I know November was hard, but you’ll bounce back from it. You always do.”

“Thanks, Coach.”

He tries hard not to resent Sully for the coaching decisions he makes. He should be grateful to even still be in Pittsburgh. They didn’t have to keep him in the offseason, but they did. He knows logically, this is a business, and in business you play to win. To win, you need your best players on the ice. Marc-Andre knows this, but it doesn’t take the burning inadequacy away. He knows he’s good. He knows he’s talented.

It’s never been enough.

What can he do but keep trying? He’ll keep coming to practice, keep smiling, and keep mentoring Matty. All to prepare for the next opportunity to contribute and prove his worth.

Mike dismisses him with a wave of his hand and Marc-Andre all but runs from the office. He wants to go home - he wants to climb in bed and never get out if he’s being honest - but instead finds himself standing in front of his stall with no recollection of walking to the locker room.

He stares at his name on top of the locker, studying the Penguins logo and the number 29 like they will provide him the solace he seeks. He has a family that he loves more than anything, but who is he without hockey, without being the Penguins’ goaltender?

He feels suddenly guilty, and thinks how arrogant that train of thought is. Guys are traded all the time. Guys spend their whole careers going from team to team and are perfectly good goaltenders and players. He's not special.

‘I’m just selfish,’ he thinks, disheartened.

It's not that he was naive enough to ever think the day he was relegated to backup wouldn't come. It’s just that he didn't see it coming now, not when he has so many years left in him to play.

What if he doesn't though? Maybe the hockey gods really are trying to tell him something.

He stares at the nameplate, willing it to change the inevitable.

Nothing changes, except everything.

~*~

October 2017

Marc-Andre subconsciously knows as soon as he stands up that he shouldn’t play the rest of the game. His head feels like it’s been spun around a full 360 degrees and he’s not sure how to get it back on right. Kyle, the trainer overseeing this game, comes up and begins asking him the standard questions.

Instead of answering, Marc-Andre thinks of Nealer shooting him in the mask with the puck. Then, of Van Reimsdyk slicing his neck open with his skate blade. He feels a bubble of panic rise in his chest.

‘I can’t leave this game. I might never get the chance to play again.’

“Flower? Answer me.”

“I’m fine, I’m fine," he says finally, willing the memories away. "He caught me in the neck, but I’m still able to play.”

“You should really come and get checked out.”

The panic flares again. He has to find a way to stay in this game. He has to be okay. For himself, for this team, and for this city in need of relief from the tragedy that happened only 13 days ago.

He cracks his best smile at Kyle and bargains, “If I don’t feel better by intermission, I’ll come out, yeah?”

Kyle gives him a dubious look but picks up his bag and jogs back to the bench.

Marc-Andre takes the TV time-out to regain his composure. He’s not losing this net too. He’s not. He tries to move his head but no matter which way he moves, his neck burns hotly.

'Once the game is back on it will be fine.' He compensates by moving his whole body towards the puck instead of just turning his neck, but letting in four more goals tells him what he already knew.

--

Sitting in his stall after successfully dodging the media for the evening, he finally admits to himself that staying in the game was stupid. The need to prove himself isn’t a good enough reason to potentially injure himself permanently. He can hear Vero now, softly reprimanding him while knowing exactly why he did it. “Think of the girls, Marc-Andre. Think of me. I need you, we all need you healthy, present, and here.” She’s right, and he knows it.

Vero’s texting him a continuous string of questions, so the sooner he gets home the better. He needs to get out of his gear and shower, but when he tries to bend down to take his pads off he almost topples over completely. He catches the floor with both hands instead of his normal crouch and can only hope he covered it well.

Bellemare notices.

He kneels down beside him. “Flower, are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, fine,” Marc-Andre says and tries to smile at him, but it comes out pained and watery. “The hit gave me one hell of a neck strain, but nothing too serious.” He attempts another smile, but the growing concern on Bellemare’s face tells him he doesn’t succeed. His fingers keep fiddling with the buckles, but he can’t seem to get them undone. His vision swims a little when he looks down, and he lets out what he’s later embarrassed to admit is a hysterical giggle.

Bellemare’s worried look deepens and he touches his shoulder lightly. “Flower?” He switches to French. “Marc-Andre, are you all right?” he asks again, sternly this time.

He looks back up to Bellemare, confused by the fear in his voice. “Yeah?” It comes out like a question.

“Marc-Andre, do you understand what I’m saying to you?” He looks to Schmidty who is, along with most of the team, openly staring at the exchange. “Go get Kyle. Now.”

Marc-Andre watches it happen, feels like he’s watching himself watch it happen, and realizes too late he’s not sure if he actually answered Belley's initial question out loud. Perhaps he’s not as okay as he thought he was.

“I’m not too old to play hockey.”

A non sequitur that Bellemare takes in stride, all things considered.

“Flower, if you’re too old to play hockey then so am I.”

“I just want to play, I want to help this city, I want--” His throat closes around the sentence as he feels the panic rise again. His eyes are hot. 'I want this team to be successful with me in net. I need it.' This team is the only chance he has left in hockey. He can’t go down like this. Everyone else can’t be right.

'Selfish.'

Bellemare stares at him intently, seeming to see right through him. He starts unbuckling Marc-Andre’s pads. “You are the cornerstone of this team, Marc-Andre. We need you, we want you, and we are with you the whole way.”

He watches Bellemare move from one pad to the next. “On this island of misfit toys?” he asks softly.

“There’s no better place to be.”

Marc-Andre hopes he’s right.

~*~

February 2017

The team has to wait for the plane to be de-iced before they can take off for St. Louis, meaning they are on the charter later than normal while in the middle of a back-to-back. They had played that night against Columbus and won, though the adrenaline of winning against a rival begins wearing off once everyone gets settled on the plane.

Marc-Andre didn’t play, again, so he has no hope of sleeping. He plays tomorrow; the first time in three weeks. He hasn’t been a healthy scratch for three full weeks since he can’t even remember when.

He berates himself for how counterproductive it is to call himself a healthy scratch when he’s been the backup but can’t seem to help it. He sighs and begins mentally listing off the steps his therapist discussed last week when he mentioned how hard it was staying positive in the room.

Not for the first time, he gets stuck on let the goals against go. He’s never really had a problem with keeping a short-term memory until this season.

Sure, he’s gone through skids and pretty bad ones at that. But he’s never felt the lingering effects of the goals against like he does this year. His play in net is tense, and he never feels like he can truly let go and just play. He can’t help himself from glancing in Sully’s direction every time a puck gets past him, wondering when the hook is coming this time, when the next “Marc played fine” platitude from Sully is coming during media.

Each goal he allows twists the knife just a little deeper. He shakes his head, frustrated at himself for not being able to let it go. He needs to find a way to win tomorrow to show them that he’s still got what it takes to be a winning goalie in this league.

He’s got a lot more people watching now, anyway. Scouts will be at every game he plays from now until whenever he gets traded. Marc-Andre tries not to let it upset him, but he can’t help but feel like the newest piece of meat poised to sell to the highest bidder. It makes his stomach turn.

“I can hear you thinking,” Sid says sleepily, turning his head towards Marc-Andre and opening one eye. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No, I’m good, man,” Marc-Andre says, rubbing at his face with both hands. “Go back to sleep. Sorry I woke you, I didn't mean to fidget.”

“You weren’t fidgeting.” Sid sighs. Lowering his voice, he says, “I’m worried about you.”

“Worried? Why?”

“Flower.”

“Sid, I’m fine. I get to play tomorrow, I’m great,” Marc-Andre says with more conviction than he feels. He smiles at Sid, hoping it reaches his eyes.

Sid sighs again and presses the button to raise his seat back. He turns his whole body towards Marc-Andre and says, “Flower, you haven’t been yourself in months. You smile, you joke around in and after practice, but you don’t fool me. You’re unhappy and you don’t talk to anyone about it--”

“I talk to Vero about it,” Marc-Andre interrupts, though it comes out more petulantly than he meant.

Sid shoves his leg. “You know what I mean. You can be honest with me. You’re one of my best friends, Flower. I know this schedule isn’t fair to you, and if I could change the circumstances I would. You know I’m here for you, right? That I’m always on your side.”

Marc-Andre smiles softly. He and Sidney go back a long ways. They’ve been through so much together. It’s going to be hard not to have Sid as his captain anymore.

He takes a settling breath and says, “There are no sides to take, Sid. I signed the waiver paperwork. My time here is limited and I want to enjoy it.”

“But are you going to? Enjoy it?”

Sid knows him too well. He says nothing so Sid continues, "I saw how much more confidently you played both times Muzz was injured. I know how good you still are when the pressure’s off."

Marc-Andre’s face grows hot, and he’s never been more grateful for the darkened cabin.

His resolve breaks and he whispers, “What if I’m not, though? What if I made a mistake?” He stares straight ahead, afraid if he looks at Sid the pressure behind his eyes will become too much. “What if I don’t end up in Vegas and start hopping from team to team? No one wants a starting goalie on the wrong side of 30.”

“Flower, you know that’s not true. I’ve known you for years, and we both know how talented you are. Any team would be lucky to have you.”

“Any team but this one, apparently.” It sits bitterly between them, and they’re both silent for a few minutes. Marc-Andre draws in a deep breath and presses on. “I haven’t won a game in a month, haven’t played at all in three weeks. How am I supposed to win tomorrow?”

“You’ll win because you’re good. Go out there, forget all the bullshit, and have fun. Staying lose is your best weapon, remember? We’ll get the win tomorrow.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Captains know their goalies better than anyone.” Sid smiles and closes his eyes. “We just sense things sometimes. We’ll get the W tomorrow, Flower. No one deserves it more than you.”

And they did.

~*~

December 2017

Marc-Andre walks into the locker room to a chorus of his name. Losing in the shoot-out was not his ideal way to come back, but he’s so damn glad to be back he can’t find it in himself to be upset.

“Flower! Second star of the night but first star in our hearts!” Schmidty shouts, clutching his hands to his chest and batting his eyes while walking towards him. He gives him a hug and claps him on the shoulder pads. “Welcome the fuck back, buddy!”

“Thank you, thank you. Big help out there for me tonight boys. Solid PK and great OT. You should be proud.” Marc-Andre feels elated in a way he wasn’t sure he was ever going to feel again in his darkest moments over the past few months.

He loves the game, loves being in the room, loves the challenge. He’s so glad he still gets to have this.

Gallant comes in briefly, tells them they played hard but to put this one behind them and prep for the next one.

The next one.

Marc-Andre can’t tell if he’s more nervous or excited for the game to finally be here, but he knows the next two days will pass slowly either way.

--

Sid has his routines down to a science, and no one with a will to live messes with those routines. Marc-Andre plans to take a combination of current and former Penguins to dinner after the game and knows he won’t hear from Sid until then.

Marc-Andre does hear from Tanger once the team lands and he invites him over for a late-night dinner. It’s nice to be with Tanger again. They talk late into the night, some about hockey but mostly about nothing in particular. They fall easily into old banter again even after so long, and Marc-Andre has missed him fiercely.

--

The next morning, he finds himself staring at his phone in disbelief after morning skate. A text from Sid reads, Lunch before nap?

Marc-Andre chuckles to himself. He has known Sidney Crosby for damn near half his life and he still manages to surprise him. Grinning, he replies, Free lunch sounds great.

A few hours later, Marc-Andre is driving them to a hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop not too far from Fremont Street. It’s one of the few places in the city he feels like he isn’t automatically recognized, though the owner gives him a knowing wink each time he comes in.

This time is no different, though the wide-eyed look of awe Sid gets as he’s paying makes Marc-Andre snicker. He makes a mental note to have Sid autograph one of the spare sticks in his trunk to give to the owner’s kid before they leave. It’s the least he can do for the discretion.

“So what’s new in Pittsburgh, Sid?” Marc-Andre asks once they sit down.

“Nothing's been the same since you left.”

Marc-Andre kicks him lightly in the shin. “Don’t be a drama queen. Seriously, how’re things?”

Sid laughs. “Things are good. There really was an adjustment period though. Tanger had to tell me to stay out of the penalty box for a change.”

Marc-Andre laughs. He remembers reading about Sidney’s on-ice antics once he was cleared to look at screens again. Sid fills him in on various things, but doesn’t waste time getting to the real reason they're at lunch. Marc-Andre can read Sid like a book, and Sid can’t seem to let go of his Captain duties, even if Marc-Andre isn’t on the team anymore.

“How are you, Flower? You seem happier,” Sid says after finally taking a bite.

“I am. It feels good to contribute and to be part of the team. It was a pretty easy adjustment period with Engo, Nealer, and Perron here. Marchy and Belley, too. It’s nice having fellow Frenchies on the team. Plus, I don’t have to listen to your crappy French anymore. I think that’s the best part,” Marc-Andre teases, waving a pickle in Sid’s direction.

Sid has the decency to look offended. “My French is not that bad.”

“Have you heard your accent, man? I remember the first time I heard you speak it. I almost wanted to cry at how poorly you were treating such a beautiful language.”

Sid returns the kick, harder than Marc-Andre.

“Ow! Interference!”

Sid laughs and puts his hands up in surrender. “Sorry. I’m glad you’ve settled in. I'm happy you’ve found yourself again.”

It makes Marc-Andre happy too. The relief he feels is palpable. Quietly, he says, “I only hope I can contribute like this for the rest of the season.”

“What, you think your face-of-the-franchise role is going away anytime soon?” Sid asks in disbelief. “You just got back.”

“Fuck off. I mean that tonight is technically only my sixth game this season. I hope I can play a lot down the stretch. Make the team proud.”

“I don’t think you have much to worry about. I’m not sure a five goalie rotation suits the NHL, expansion team magic or not.”

The lunch conversation is as effortless as dinner with Tanger. It flows from hockey to family to living in Vegas and everything in between. Marc-Andre has missed this. He loves his teammates but didn’t realize how afraid he was of things being different with Sid and Tanger. He didn’t think he needed the confirmation that some things never change, but he’s glad to have it now.

They finish up, and Marc-Andre collects their trash to throw away. “I have to admit, I’m surprised we’re here right now. I didn’t think lunch with the enemy was part of your pregame ritual.”

“Enemy,” Sid scoffs and rolls his eyes. “I thought it might be time to begin a new pregame ritual.”

Marc-Andre laughs at his friend. “But it would only happen twice a season.”

“Not true. What’s stopping me from taking out each opposing goaltender on game day?”

“It might get expensive,” Marc-Andre counters, playing along.

“True. I suppose it’ll have to be a Vegas Golden Knights special.”

“I’d like that.”

--

-I’ve been waiting since junior to score on you. The least you could’ve done is let me have one.

-Not a chance. Maybe you should work on your shot.

~*~

May 2017

The speed at which Marc-Andre goes from feeling like the heartache of this whole year was worth it to the realization that the pain never left makes his head spin.

It was like something had shifted when Matty went down in warm-ups. While he would never wish injury on his teammate, he couldn’t deny he’d been having a blast in net again. Finally, he was a part of the team, playing his best hockey of the season and helping the team win games. Helping the team get closer to the ultimate prize for the second year in a row. He was having the most fun he’d had since the concussion that started this whole mess.

But in the span of 12 minutes, everything shifted back. He was tense, in his own head, and trying too hard. His own inability to let go ended his season seven games too early.

He knows what getting pulled signifies for him. He’s not getting back in net and he’s no longer the Penguins goalie. He’s officially in limbo; the team he’s on doesn’t want him and the team he’s going to doesn’t exist yet.

Marc-Andre is just so angry. At himself, at Sully, at this joke of a comeback. The disappointment and frustration seeps through him like a poison, and the understanding that this is truly the end is almost too much to handle. He berates himself for making it all about him again. It’s not about him. He runs this through his head like a mantra. It’s about the team and about winning both this series and the next.

--

He doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he’s avoiding Sully at morning skate, since the you’ve done well for us the last fifteen games, but you look tired. That’s why Muzz is getting the call tomorrow conversation yesterday. Instead, he focuses solely on the team. He keeps the mood light in practice, chirping the guys and roughing around on the ice. He’ll have plenty of time to deal with his hurt feelings outside the rink.

The thing is, the agreement with Vegas is a done deal, and there are no more questions for Marc-Andre as to where he stands in this organization. As the team makes their way back to the locker room, he smiles sullenly to himself. Maybe it’s a good thing that this happened. If he had gone all the way, been in net for Pittsburgh up to the very end, wouldn’t leaving be even more difficult?

When Mike tells the group what the lineup is going to be that night, Marc-Andre pretends that nothing is out of the ordinary and studiously takes off his pads and skates. When he looks up, several guys look away, and he glances in the direction of his goalie partner. Matt steadfastly ignores him, so he looks on toward Sid, Tanger, and Geno, who are all watching Mike walk out with varying degrees of appalled disbelief. Tanger meets his gaze, but Sid gets up to follow Mike, skates still on. Marc-Andre is quick to follow.

Once they’re out of the locker room, he grabs Sid’s arm and pulls him to a halt. “Sid, stop.”

“Flower, this is bullshit and you know it.”

Marc-Andre frowns but presses on. “Yeah but it doesn’t matter, does it? We’re down 2-1 and we have a Cup to fight for. The better goalie should get the start.”

“That’s why I’m going to speak to Sully.”

Marc-Andre tightens his grip on Sid’s arm and feels himself starting to get pissed. “I’m not a fucking damsel in distress who needs you to come to my rescue. Just leave it alone. Don’t you think Muzz feels guilty enough already?”

Sid’s anger comes just as quickly. He jerks his arm out of Marc-Andre’s grasp and says, “We wouldn’t have even made it this far without you, Flower. And now what? Your season is done because we all played like shit two days ago?”

“Stop making this about me! It’s about the team. You need your best players on the ice, and that clearly wasn’t me last game. This is Sully giving the team a chance to win, and arguing with him isn’t going to help anything,” he spits out, anger flaring hotly through his words. “I’m going to Vegas. This is the end of the line for me, and I’m going to try and enjoy these last few games because there’s no coming back stronger next year.”

“How can you say that like it doesn’t matter?”

Marc-Andre wonders if he looks as exasperated as he feels. The hilarity of the moment isn’t lost on him - the two of them standing in the hallway of the Canadian Tire Centre arguing in hushed voices over something neither of them can change. He’s desperate to stop what’s happening, his eyes beginning to prickle. He bites the inside of his cheek hard and throws his hands up in defeat. “What are we even arguing about?”

Sid, stubborn as ever, pushes on and says, “I’m going to talk to him. I’m the captain, Flower. I need to do this.” He turns towards Mike’s temporary office and Marc-Andre watches him go.

--

Several hours later when they’re back in the locker room lacing up, the tension still sits heavily around them. The guys are subdued and several keep stealing glances between him and Matt, not knowing what to say.

Marc-Andre’s resolve hardens. He won’t let his tenure on this team end this way. He’s not going out as a bitter veteran goaltender that can’t accept he’s not the guy anymore.

As much as he’s not ready to leave the Pens, not ready to be an ex-teammate, not ready to be referred to as an old friend, he doesn’t want this to be the thing people remember. He wants to be remembered as the person he always tried to be - fun loving and team-first oriented. He’s not going to let this sit awkwardly between himself and Matt for the rest of the playoffs. This team means too much to him.

Resolutely, he walks across the room to where Matt is stretching and bends over so they’re face to face. Matt seems reluctant to meet his gaze, but Marc-Andre waits to speak until he does. Once their eyes lock, Marc-Andre smiles wide and says, “You’ve got this, Matty. We’re going to win this thing.”

The relief that washes over Matt’s face would have been funny under any other circumstance. “Yeah. Yeah, Flower, we are,” he says back, holding his fist up tentatively for a tap.

Marc-Andre obliges and turns back to his locker, whooping out a “Let’s go boys!” and patting guys encouragingly as he goes by. Just like that the tension breaks and everyone starts gearing up to head out for warm ups.

They’ll do this together. As a team.

~*~

February 2018

Marc-Andre doesn't think he'll ever get used to being in the opposing net in Pittsburgh. But he’ll never tire of the butterflies he feels hearing the fans chant his name. He's embarrassed by the satisfaction he feels that they remember him, that they still care.

It will fade with time but that doesn't mean he isn’t going to enjoy the moment for all it’s worth.

It’s harder to enjoy when they’re down 5-2 with 14 minutes left in the third, but he still manages a smile when the crowd cheers him on. He takes great pleasure in stoning Sid throughout the game but is pissed when Geno and Phil get one past him. He sees right through Tanger’s lame attempt to shoot at him and finds an opportunity to slash at his ankles during the last TV time-out.

“At least try, asshole!”

Tanger just smiles and skates away.

His team makes an impressive push to tie it, but Muzz holds them off. Their rivalry is a wash at one win each, but Marc-Andre would do anything for it to be 2-0.

He's disappointed in his play, annoyed that his emotions got the better of him after the video tribute. This win was important to him. He had hoped to show Pittsburgh and Vegas both just what he had to offer but all he offered was further evidence the Penguins made the right choice. He wonders if Vegas thinks they made the right choice too.

He tries to shake himself of the negative thoughts. He is determined to remember the good parts of this night, not the bad.

As he's taking off his pads, none of the guys seem to want to look in his direction. He stands up and addresses the room. “This loss isn’t any different, boys. We fought back hard to make it within one. The PK was strong. You guys really battled out there and had my back when I let in some soft ones. Let’s learn from our mistakes, forget this game, and move on to the next.”

Gallant comes in half way through and stands quietly, listening. Once Marc-Andre is done, he only says, “I see Flower's got this one handled. Listen to him boys!" before walking back out of the room again.

Marc-Andre looks around and a few guys give him a smile or thumbs up. He makes a mental note of who still won’t look in his direction so he can talk to them one on one on the bus to make sure they’re all right. He knows they feel bad because of how much this game meant to him. But his team means more.

He's untying his skates when Perron sits down next to him. "You're like our de facto captain, Flower," he tells him. “The guys can’t help but feel like we let you down. We wanted this win for you and we didn’t deliver. We’re sorry, man.”

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Marc-Andre says, surprised by the amount of regret in Dave’s voice. “We win as a team and lose as a team, remember? We played well, and we'll play better next time. Also, this team doesn’t need a captain.”

“Yes it does,” Schmidty interrupts, clapping Marc-Andre on the shoulder as he walks by.

"He's right," Dave continues, giving Marchy a quick tap as he walks out as well. "You're our leader, the one this team plays for."

"We play for each other," Marc-Andre argues, not sure what to make of this.

"Sure but tonight we wanted the W for you," Dave says, leaning over to give Marc-Andre a one-armed hug. He gets up and says, “We’ll win the next one for ya, Cap,” winking as he heads toward the bus.

~*~

June 2018

The loss hurts. It burns deep in Marc-Andre’s gut, made worse by the fact that it’s the fucking Capitals. Watching the Caps celebrate their victory is worse than being sidelined for 25 games this season.

Everything he and his team had worked for burst into flames in the span of five games. He feels like he let the entire city of Las Vegas down. Hopefully one day they can forgive him.

--

As the reporters finally disburse, Marc-Andre puts his head in his hands and takes a long, deep breath. He's felt so much better lately; everything has felt so much better. He feels a million miles away from the dark place he was in last year at this time, but these last five games have allowed the doubt to creep back in.

He glances around the room, looking at the fallen faces of his teammates and wishes he could change what’s happened. He thinks back to what Perron said all those months ago back in Pittsburg. If he really is a de facto captain, he’s doing a pretty shitty job of it. He rubs his eyes and gets to taking the rest of his gear off. He has a team to take care of.

--

The next day is locker cleanout, and it still feels raw. The loss lays heavy on his heart. He'd spent most of the evening prior making sure to speak to each of the younger guys, not allowing them to leave until they understood no blame falls solely on them; that this is a team sport and no single forward or d-man loses a series.

Goalies though, they can make or break a team. He will always regret breaking this one.

Bellemare calls him mid-morning and invites him over for consolatory brunch before media. Marc-Andre almost declines, but he hadn’t had the chance to talk to Belley after the game. Plus, he figures it might be good to get out of his own head for a few hours, so he and Vero gather the girls to head over to the Bellemare’s.

Once there, his girls rush to coo over baby Leandre. Hannah and Vero watch over them while the guys set the table.

“What a shitty day, eh?” Marc-Andre asks, taking more care than necessary to place a napkin at each place setting.

“I’ve definitely had better,” Belley agrees.

He places another napkin. “You know, I never thanked you."

"Thanked me for what?"

"For what you did the night of my concussion. You really talked me off a ledge there, so to speak."

Bellemare reaches over to squeeze his shoulder. "We all stood on various ledges throughout the season, man. I'm glad I was able to help you off yours."

"It really meant a lot to me." He pauses. Then, "Look, Belley, I’m sorry--”

“Flower, don’t.”

“Please, let me finish. We were good enough to beat the Caps. I should have played better for you guys, but I couldn’t buy a save. This team deserved the Cup. This city deserved the win. For that I’m sorry.”

Belley glares at him and says, “Do you really think you were the only guy on the ice for five games? What happened to win as a team, lose as a team?” There’s heat behind the words, and Marc-Andre shakes his head.

"No, of course not. I--"

"Then stop apologizing. You are the one that got us as far as we did, Flower. It sucks right now, but what we did, what you did, is absurd. Leading an expansion team to the Stanley Cup Final? I'm pretty sure you've guaranteed yourself a spot in the rafters some day."

Marc-Andre scoffs. "I sincerely doubt that."

"Maybe not, but either way, don’t belittle what you did for this team. It was amazing.”

“What happened to win as a team, lose as a team?” Marc-Andre innocently asks, ducking his head to hide a smile.

Bellemare shoves him playfully. “Asshole.”

Marc-Andre tips his head back and laughs. He feels lighter. He pulls Bellemare into a hug and says, "Thank you for that. I needed it.”

"You're welcome. Besides, we have plenty of time to do even more amazing things next season."

"I hope so. I hope we exceed expectations for a long time."

Bellemare looks surprised. "No grand return to Pittsburgh after your contract is up next season? You're happy here? Truly happy?”

Marc-Andre looks across the room to watch Hannah pick Leandre up and snuggle him close before settling his gaze on Vero and the girls. He smiles.

“I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.”