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playoffs

Decision to keep Marc-Andre Fleury paying off for Penguins

Goaltender has carried Pittsburgh in playoffs after Matt Murray injury, expected to start Game 1 vs. Senators

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Correspondent

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford sported a considerable grin Friday morning.

Rutherford opened his press conference with a lighthearted joke, which got a few laughs. He made a few more throughout the next 11 minutes.

That scene wouldn't have taken place without goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, Rutherford admitted Friday, one day before the Penguins will host the Ottawa Senators in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final at PPG Paints Arena (7 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).

"If I decided to trade [Fleury], we wouldn't be in this room right now," Rutherford said. "You'd be in another room in another city."

After goalie Matt Murray sustained a lower-body injury during warmups before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round, Fleury won four of five starts against the Columbus Blue Jackets and continued his strong play against in a seven-game win against the Washington Capitals in the second round.

Fleury is expected to start Game 1 against the Senators on Saturday.

"I've really enjoyed it," Fleury said. "I try to look around and enjoy every moment of it. … My teammates, all year long, they've been great and awesome."

Until Game 7 of the second round, Washington routinely outplayed Pittsburgh. Fleury was the difference. He allowed two goals in three of the first four games before shutting out the Capitals, with Murray backing up for the first time this postseason, in a 2-0 win at Verizon Center.

Video: Clutch Performance: Fleury backstops Pens to the ECF

"In the Washington series, I thought we played two good games as a team," Rutherford said. "If it wasn't for our goaltending, we wouldn't have won the series."

Leading up to the 2017 NHL Trade Deadline on March 1, Fleury's future in Pittsburgh was in doubt, despite Rutherford's continued claims he hoped to retain him and Murray. The GM first made that claim when training camp opened in September, but the rumors continued.

The deadline passed with Fleury continuing to sit on the bench, backing up Murray.

"No victory laps," Rutherford said. "I never changed my position from the start of camp. I never wavered on it. I had some calls during the season asking about him. Those conversations didn't go very far."

Before the deadline, Fleury had started six games since Dec. 31. After making 28 saves in a 6-2 home win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Jan. 8, he did not start at PPG Paints Arena again until Feb. 16, when he made 44 saves against the Winnipeg Jets.

Fleury had three starts from Jan. 14-Feb. 11 and allowed a combined 10 goals in two of them (six goals to the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 14 and four to the Arizona Coyotes on Feb. 11).

 

[RELATED: Complete Penguins vs. Senators series coverage

 

"When he's playing a lot of games, that's when he plays his best," Rutherford said. "During the regular season, when they got into the point where they were splitting the bit and one guy played five in a row then the other guy played, that's a tougher situation for him. It's not something that he's used to."

Meanwhile, Murray thrived. He was 32-10-4 with a 2.41 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in his first full NHL season, so Fleury sat behind his protégé and watched his starting role become a not-so-distant memory.

"I know there were times during the season where it became a little more difficult for the coaching staff and for the goalies because they both want to play," Rutherford said. "When they were both healthy, it didn't work ideally because one guy maybe sat a little longer than he wanted. But as it turns out, it's worked good for both guys."

Fleury never complained. He didn't last year, when he backed up Murray in the Stanley Cup Playoffs after sustaining two concussions in the regular season and the Penguins won the championship.

"I can't be happier for Marc," Rutherford said, "because to me, he is one of the best team players in all of sports. To see how he handled the situation and ultimately, how he's played in these two rounds, I couldn't be happier."

Now Murray temporarily has surrendered his role because of an untimely injury. He plans to handle this situation the same way his mentor would.

"Knowing when to give him a pat on the back, I guess, and then knowing when to stay out of his way," Murray said. "It's just kind of mental support, like everything [Fleury] did for me last year."

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