Switch from Fleury to Murray could be defining moment for Penguins

Penguins showed up with Murray goaltending (0:58)

Craig Custance explains why Matt Murray was put in a tough situation after coach Mike Sullivan started him over Marc-Andre Fleury. (0:58)

OTTAWA -- Usually, a quick smile precedes answers from Marc-Andre Fleury when he's chatting with the media.

This time, deep breaths.

The goalie swap from Fleury to Matt Murray for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals against the Ottawa Senators is the cruel reality of professional sports.

Loyalty goes only so far. If a coach thinks someone else gives them a better shot at winning, they're in. Especially on this stage, with so much on the line.

And so Fleury took the high road once again when he was approached after a Game 4 in which the Penguins evened the series 2-2 against the Senators -- even if his measured words only slightly betrayed the competitor inside of him who had to be livid.

"I don't want to make this about myself," Fleury said, displaying one of many reasons he's the most popular player in the Penguins dressing room. "It's about the team. Now, we won [Game 4], scored some goals. That was nice. We won. It's good."

And the conversation he had with coach Mike Sullivan about the decision?

"Private," Fleury said.

That was that. Sometimes it's best to say less.

Now, as the Eastern Conference finals move to a best of three -- Game 5 is Sunday at 3 p.m. ET -- this might end up being the defining decision of Sullivan's second playoff run with the Penguins.

This series might also be the last time we see Fleury making significant contributions to the Penguins, a bittersweet moment for a player universally loved both in that dressing room and by the Penguins' fan base.

And while those inside the room and surrounding the team are emotionally invested in this decision because there's so much riding on it and so many personal relationships attached, those unattached see the logic in the decision.

Murray is the No. 1 goalie. This is one of the few arrangements in the league where the No. 1 had to wait so long to get his job back during the postseason. Nearly anywhere else, it would have been a no-brainer.

"It doesn't make Fleury a bad goalie or anything," said former NHL goalie and goalie coach Corey Hirsch. "[Sullivan] probably feels Murray is the better goalie. I don't blame him. Maybe he is. He sees him day in and day out. Unfortunately for Fleury, it's a little bit of a kick."

Hirsch also saw the move as an attempt to inject adrenaline into a group that has been slogging through a long, laborious grind in which players have dropped almost daily. It worked in Game 4, with the Penguins playing as well as they have against the Senators.

The numbers suggest Murray is the better goalie. In 691 career regular season games, Fleury has a .912 save percentage. In 62 regular season games, Murray is at .925.

In the playoffs, Fleury has a .908 save percentage in 62 games. Murray is at .924 in 23 games.

Even in the small sample of this year's postseason, Murray has an edge with a .935 save percentage compared to Fleury's .924.

Perhaps there's no reason to overthink this. Murray is the better goaltender and it was time to make the change.

"Murray has been better than Fleury all year," texted an Eastern Conference goalie coach. "You have to know your players. Murray is very strong mentally and emotionally. He showed that."

Said another goalie coach of Murray: "He's won before, so you know he has the confidence within him to do it again. Makes your decision easier. Looks like he had a good night, so tough to argue the decision."

Sullivan also hinted at another motivation that becomes a weapon as this series moves on: Murray's rest.

"He's fresh," Sullivan said. "He's had some real high-quality practice time."

In a postseason in which the Penguins appear at times to be running on fumes and powered only by pride and a longing desire to repeat, they had one key player whose reserves were full. Murray was a wasted weapon if he hadn't been used before this postseason ended.

Whether or not Fleury was tired is debatable, but there's no doubt Murray was ready to go based on how he's performed since getting the call from Sullivan. Sullivan has said countless times that it's never an easy decision choosing between the two. Surely Fleury's popularity in that dressing room makes it even harder. Even after winning Game 4, players expressed disappointment in how they played in front of Fleury in Game 3. They felt they owed him better.

"We didn't put him in a very good spot," Sidney Crosby said. "You never want to put your goalie in that situation."

If the Penguins pull this off, if they collapse past the finish line with another Stanley Cup, Fleury can raise it with absolute pride whether or not he plays another second as a member of the Penguins. They're not here without him.

"He's done a great job for us," Penguins forward Carl Hagelin said of Fleury's contributions. "He's probably the best teammate I've ever played with. I can easily say that."