TAMPA -- Decision time has arrived for Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. It was bound to come to this eventually, no matter how great a story 21-year-old rookie goalie Matt Murray has been creating in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Fresh off a 4-3 loss in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final on Friday that evened the best-of-7 series at 2-2, Sullivan has to make the toughest and most important decision of his short tenure in Pittsburgh.
Will it be Murray or Marc-Andre Fleury who steps into the crease as Pittsburgh's starting goalie for Game 5 at Consol Energy Center on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports)?
Will it be the rookie who allowed all four goals in Game 4 and has a save percentage of .892 in his past six games, or the veteran who stopped the seven shots he faced in the third period Friday, the first seven shots he has faced since March 31?
"I haven't really given it any thought at this point," Sullivan said not long after Game 4 was officially in the books.
Video: PIT@TBL, Gm4: Drouin pads the lead on the power play
It's not at all surprising that he hadn't yet contemplated this decision in the moments following a loss that featured a dramatic third-period comeback, with Fleury in net, that fell one goal short. Don't blame him for that. The game that just happened is too fresh in his mind.
But you can bet that Sullivan will be contemplating this decision at the postgame team meal, in his hotel room, when he wakes up Saturday and on the flight back to Pittsburgh. You can bet that this decision will weigh on his mind unlike any he has had to make so far. When he met the media Saturday, Sullivan said he make the decision on Sunday.
The thought of having to make that decision has probably already been weighing on him because Sullivan knows what Murray has meant to the Penguins during this playoff run. But he also knows what Fleury means to the Penguins, specifically to his teammates. On Saturday,
"He's not only one of the best teammates that you can have, he's a [heck] of a player," defenseman Kris Letang said of Fleury. "He battles hard every day. You're just happy for him."
There's no question that the Penguins' played for him in the third period Friday.
Video: PIT@TBL, Gm4: Kunitz trims the Pens' deficit to one
They scored three goals, one by Phil Kessel before Fleury had to make a save and one each by Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz after Fleury had shed his nerves with a tremendous poke check-to-pad save on Vladislav Namestnikov.
Letang even admitted that the Penguins raised their game in the third period in part because they wanted to have Fleury's back as he tried to shed the rust from having not played in more than seven weeks.
"For sure," Letang said. "He's such an important guy for us since he was drafted. He's a very good leader for us. He had a [heck] of a season; it's just too bad that these things happen. It was fun to see him in net, give us a push. I'm pretty sure that pushed the guys to work hard."
Sullivan has to consider that when he makes his decision. It would be insane for him not to, because as confident as the players have been in Murray since he took over as the No. 1 in Game 3 of the first round against the New York Rangers, their love for Fleury is unyielding.
There are people around the Penguins, yes many players too, who feel Fleury is the most important player on the team and has been all season.
If anything, that opinion was only bolstered in the third period of Game 4.
"He looked like Flower," Crosby said, using Fleury's nickname. "He's been great for us all year. He looked comfortable, which is great."
Video: PIT@TBL, Gm4: Fleury stones Namestnikov on doorstep
Fleury felt comfortable, or at least he did once he shook off the nerves he admittedly had at the start of the period.
"I felt a lot better at the end of it than at the beginning of the period," Fleury said. "Just to be part of the game, the traffic, the speed; I've been practicing for a while so it's good to see the difference. It was fine."
Sullivan has to weigh that in his decision as well. His performance was strong, and perfect.
But here's the thing that makes this such a quandary for the coach: Murray was solid too.
Despite allowing four goals, Murray might have had his best performance since Game 4 against the Washington Capitals in the second round, when he made 34 saves in a 3-2 overtime win.
Murray had been behind the play more often than not, fighting the puck, leaving rebounds in front of him, struggling on some shots to the glove side. He did none of that Friday. Instead, he was square to the shooter, in control with his blocker and glove, catching up to the play and the puck, and even handling it well.
The first three goals were hardly his fault. Ryan Callahan scored on a deflection. Andrej Sustr scored on the rush because nobody picked him up when he came into the zone. Jonathan Drouin scored on the power play after Murray followed his pass, which hit Ondrej Palat and bounced right back to Drouin.
Video: PIT@TBL, Gm4: Johnson scores off Kucherov's feed
Maybe Murray could have been better on the fourth goal because he went down on the short side when he shouldn't have and it cost him getting over in time to stop Tyler Johnson. But even that one appeared to bounce off of Johnson and float over Murray's glove and into the net.
"I thought I was in position most of the time," Murray said. "Their last two goals were just brutal bounces, and good bounces for them. I felt really good. I competed really hard. I did everything really well I thought."
Not surprisingly, neither Fleury nor Murray would go anywhere near commenting on the decision Sullivan has to make for Game 5.
"It's a coach's decision for the next one," Fleury said.
"Not my place to say anything about that," Murray said.
Sullivan will have to say something about it soon. He'll have to make a decision that he's probably been dreading for some time now. Murray or Fleury? Rookie or veteran? Confident young goalie or beloved teammate?
It's the most important decision Sullivan has had to make as the Penguins' coach, and he can't be wrong.