As predicted, it was civil.
When told of the Penguins’ Game 4 starter, Marc-Andre Fleury disappeared, once again graciously relinquishing the crease to Matt Murray, Pittsburgh’s presently healthy, and always preferred, puck stopper.
In any other case, such an abrupt, outwardly unjust demotion would be awkward, and totally ego-bruising, and the sort of subject easier to dance around. But with Fleury, it was unsurprisingly imposed without a hint of resentment or friction.
He doesn’t wear the label of “best team player in sports” because he had his teammates’ names painted on the back of his goalie mask. Fleury’s beloved for his selflessness, and for his spirit.
Which is why it was so satisfying to bear witness to his resurgence.
Having watched a championship run from the end of the bench last year when Murray surfaced from the minor leagues, and then serving as the backup this season while at the same time managing the ever-present threat of a trade proposal – which would have truly tested his team-first mentality – Fleury was called upon after warmups in Game 1 of the first round when the Penguins’ hot, upstart netminder went down with an injury.
In that moment, Fleury launched an unlikely Conn Smythe Trophy bid. He steadied the ship with six wins from his first seven starts, and just when the Washington Capitals appeared to have figured out the defending Stanley Cup champions, Fleury rescued Pittsburgh with a 29-save shutout in Game 7 to set up an Eastern Conference Final versus the Ottawa Senators.
Beaten only twice in the first two games versus the Senators, Fleury had fashioned a .931 save percentage for a team being badly outshot through two-plus rounds by the time Game 3 rolled around, when one poor performance meant that his postseason would cruelly be put on hold.
Wearing the angst of having to make a difficult decision on his face, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan announced a few hours before puck drop on Game 4 that Murray – a netminder whose only game action in six weeks was his mop-up duty in Game 3 – would start.
It was a major gamble, but one the organization felt they had to take.
“We never take these decisions lightly,” he explained. “They’re extremely difficult. And this is the choice we made for Game 4.”
Early on, Murray was justifying this decision. He made a collection of confident stops, which included a momentum-shifting pad denial on Derick Brassard.
But the Senators, too, would assist in the defense of that decision. They were sluggish and unorganized for large stretches in a game that presented the opportunity to take a stranglehold, and close to within a win of a Stanley Cup Final appearance.
In the end, Sullivan needed every one of Murray’s 24 saves, as the Senators mounted a late-game comeback, and came up one goal short.
After the game, Murray admitted that he lacked his typical sharpness and at times struggled with rebound control, often putting the puck back into dangerous areas.
He also noted that it was imperative for him to not overthink the circumstances surrounding his return, and to simplify the game.
This was made far easier, surely, by Fleury not giving him something else to cloud his focus.
“We have a really good relationship in that way,” Murray explained. “We just kept things light this morning when we were at morning skate, and I think that helped me a lot with keeping the nerves down and stuff like that.
“Flower is always good for that, knowing when to joke around and when to say the right thing.
“I’ve said it all along, he’s been great with me in that regard, and I owe a lot to him for sure.”
So too do the Penguins.