NASHVILLE – When Marc-Andre Fleury handed the Stanley Cup off to Matt Murray after the Pittsburgh Penguins’ claimed their second straight title, it was a symbolic gesture of one franchise goaltender passing the torch to another.
While Fleury had played more games over the past two seasons, Murray received the lion’s share of work in the postseason, helping the Penguins add a fourth and now fifth Cup banner. The goaltenders had a special bond, working with one another on a daily basis and stepping in when injury felled the other. Their relationship wasn’t one of competitive rivalry, but rather that of a mutual support system.
“It means everything to me, honestly,” Murray said of Fleury’s Cup pass. “The fact that he handed me the Cup there that was one of the most special moments in my life, for sure.”
A year ago, Murray was thrown onto the Stanley Cup Playoff stage after Fleury was sidelined with a concussion. He took over in Game 3 of Round 1 against the New York Rangers, and aside from one Eastern Conference Final game where Fleury regained his crease, it was the rookie who led the Penguins to a Cup victory over the San Jose Sharks.
Fast forward a year later and it was Fleury’s turn to step up when a groin injury sidelined Murray prior to Pittsburgh’s first playoff game. The veteran goaltender helped the Penguins through two rounds before the combination of a bad Game 3 vs. the Ottawa Senators in the conference final and Murray returning to full health saw head coach Mike Sullivan make a change in net.
Murray took the reins and didn’t look back. He posted three shutouts in 11 starts, two of which came in the final two games against the Predators.
“My heart rate’s still pretty high from the game,” Murray said after his 27-save performance in Game 6. “It hasn’t stopped since. I’m trying to relax a bit here. I think it’ll start to sink in the next few days maybe, then we’ll enjoy it.”
The Penguins have begun their summer of celebrating, but very soon they’ll likely be saying goodbye to Fleury, a cornerstone piece of the franchise since being selected No. 1 overall in the 2003 NHL Draft. The Vegas Golden Knights’ expansion draft is next week and teams can only protect one goaltender. For the Penguins, Murray will be that guy, leading general manager Jim Rutherford to choose between several options.
Either he deals Fleury, who has a modified no-trade clause where he can list 18 teams he’d accept a trade to; convince the 32-year-old netminder to waive his no-move clause to be exposed in the expansion draft; or buy out the final two years of his contract, thereby making him an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and eligible to select his next destination.
For now, Fleury will enjoy his third Cup title and worry about the business side of hockey later on. While he may not have been in the crease the final game of the season like he was in 2009, he played a big role in helping this Penguins team after Murray went down. His play through parts of three rounds even had members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association inquiring if they could submit a Conn Smythe vote that included both goaltenders (that idea was shot down).
“I tried to remind myself when I got the Cup about those two series. It was some of the most fun hockey I’ve played,” Fleury said to Hockey Night in Canada afterward. “I really enjoyed those series, and obviously to win there at the end was nice.”
Fleury and Murray each played the role of soundboard for the other when encouragement or advice was needed. Over the past two years they developed a friendship as they worked to own the position as the Penguins’ No. 1 goaltender.
Murray moving forward will undisputedly own that title but Fleury’s contributions to an historic Cup victory will not be forgotten.
“I think together, we did a good job for these playoffs,” Fleury said via the Tribune Review. “He’s a good guy to share it with.”
– – – – – – –