Murray’s Game 4 start signals end for Fleury in Pittsburgh

Shawn McKenzie and Jason York get you set for Senators-Penguins Game 4, where Matt Murray will get the start in net for Pittsburgh, but that won’t matter if their offence doesn’t get going.

OTTAWA – Any notion that Marc-Andre Fleury will be a Pittsburgh Penguin in 2017-18 just became even more farfetched.

The defending champions will start Matt Murray in Game 4, head coach Mike Sullivan announced, indirectly crowning the younger, cheaper netminder their goaltender of the present and the future.

“It’s a good difficult decision to have, because we have two guys who are as capable as they are,” Sullivan said. “We never take these decisions lightly. They’re extremely difficult decisions.

“We try to make the best decisions that we think give our team the best chance to win.”

The coach declined to explain why he chose Murray over Fleury.

A surprise post-season starter back in early April when Murray injured himself warming up for the first game in the first round, Fleury outshone 2017’s top two Vezina finalists — Columbus’s Sergei Bobrovsky and Washington’s Braden Holtby — to backstop his team to the Eastern Conference Final.

The 32-year-old has gathered nine wins, two shutouts, and a .924 save percentage in these playoffs, yet his leash will go down as one of the tightest in NHL history.

After Fleury allowed four goals on nine first-period shots in Game 3, he was yanked and replaced by Murray, who had been idle since April 6.

“They came out hard, harder than we did,” Fleury said Thursday. “They got a couple of fluky goals. They got the lead, and I didn't shut it down.”

Neither goaltender spoke to the media Friday.

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Chris Kunitz noted Fleury’s “unbelievable goaltending performance” leading to the Penguins' lone win of the series, a 1-0 shutout, in Game 2.

Matt Cullen lamented that the team hung Fleury out to dry in Wednesday’s 5-1 loss. By not giving Fleury a chance to redeem himself, the organization is doing the same.

Fleury was hardly the only Penguin who underperformed that night.

Murray surrendered just one goal on 20 shots in long relief Wednesday, but the Senators believe they didn’t really test the 22-year-old because they were hanging back to protect a lead.

Ottawa centre Derick Brassard said Thursday he’d be “shocked” if Fleury didn’t get the call. Considering Fleury occupied the starter’s crease at Thursday’s practice while Murray and third-stringer Tristan Jarry shared a net, he’s not the only one.

“He brought them there,” Brassard said. “Fleury won the Cup [in 2009]. He's been a proven No. 1 goalie in this league, and Murray won the Cup for them last year. Those two guys are good goalies. It doesn't really matter. We just have to play the same way.”

Murray believed his undisclosed lower-body injury would keep him out of the lineup longer than it did and said he felt no signs of rust in his long-awaited return.

“You know, each time I've gotten hurt, I've come back stronger,” Murray said Thursday. He is signed through 2019-20 at a club-friendly $3.75-million cap hit.

While Murray holds higher trade value, Fleury is the one who should expect to be dealt this off-season (he can submit a 12-team no-trade list).

There is no chance Pittsburgh allows Murray to get scooped up by the Golden Knights in the expansion draft.

Vegas, Calgary and Winnipeg should all have interest in transplanting the Flower.

Fleury has been regarded as the ultimate teammate for the manner in which he’s handled Murray’s ascension to No. 1 on the depth chart.

Sullivan said Fleury took the news “like a professional, as he always is.”

While Fleury’s quick pull from this series will anger a segment of Pittsburgh’s fan base, winning can soothe all wounds.

“We have loyalty to our whole group. I don't think it's any one particular guy. This is a team. It's a team in the true sense of the word,” Sullivan said.

“So are we appreciative of the contributions that all of our guys make, Marc included? Yes, absolutely. We wouldn't be to the point where we're at without these guys, any of them. So that's how we look at it. I think we have loyalty to our whole team.”

As for the Senators, they’ll watch video on Murray, but the goalie switch won’t alter their game plan to crash the net and create screens.

“To be honest with you, we don’t care,” coach Guy Boucher said.

“We've had to deal with [Tuukka] Rask, who was on a tear, and then we had to deal with [Henrik] Lundqvist, who was on a tear, and we just played against Fleury, who was on a tear.

“Whether it's him or another goaltender, it's not something we control, and makes no difference in our game.”