When Matt Murray left the ice during the warm-ups before Game 1 of the Pittsburgh Penguins' first-round Stanley Cup playoff series and did not return, the Pens still felt pretty good about their chances. After all, they had veteran Marc-Andre Fleury waiting in the wings.
It wasn't the first time that having a top-notch goaltending tandem -- essentially co-No. 1s -- served the Pens well. Last spring, both Murray and Fleury were working their way back from injuries as Pittsburgh entered the playoffs, but Murray returned first, stepping in for Jeff Zatkoff in the team's third playoff game. Fleury was the presumed starter, but Murray's excellent play helped him hang onto the job even after Fleury healed. The rookie led the Penguins all the way to their second Stanley Cup of the Sidney Crosby era.
The Penguins' playoff goalie revolving door wasn't finished swinging, either. The roles reversed this spring when Murray was injured before Game 1, and Fleury stepped in seamlessly, winning consecutive series against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals. The veteran blinked, however, in Game 3 of the conference finals, allowing four goals in just under 13 minutes. Murray replaced him, and it's been his net ever since. Somehow, through all of this goalie shuffling, the Penguins continued to win. Entering Game 2 of the Final against the Nashville Predators on Wednesday, Pittsburgh is just three victories from winning its second consecutive Stanley Cup.
Former Detroit Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood, a three-time Stanley Cup champion, has been watching the playoffs from afar, but knows what each goalie has dealt with along the way. After all, he's been on both sides.
Osgood won his first Cup in 1997 as a backup to Mike Vernon, before defending the title as the starter the following season. He calls his third Cup the most significant, though. After splitting time with Dominik Hasek throughout the regular season, Osgood replaced the Hall of Famer in Game 3 of the first round of the 2008 playoffs and led the aging Wings to the championship.
"Both of these guys are good teammates," says Osgood of Murray and Fleury. "I think that's the biggest thing, and people don't really talk about it a lot. If that wasn't the case, it wouldn't work."
Osgood sees parallels between his relationship with Hasek and the dynamic between Fleury and Murray.
"There are plenty of similarities between Dom and I, and Murray and Fleury," Osgood said. "If you have two guys who get along and want each other to do well, who feed off of each other and want to win no matter what and who have a healthy competition, you can go a long way. I obviously wanted Dom to do well, but when I went in, I wanted to do well, too. It was the same situation. We just wanted to win. That's what it came down to. Obviously, you want to be the guy who is playing, but in the end, you just want to win."
Osgood said Fleury's collaborative attitude is a key reason Penguins coach Mike Sullivan could put someone of his pedigree on the bench in the playoffs in favor of a much younger, greener goalie -- not once, but twice.
"It's tougher for Fleury to sit on the bench and do what he's doing than to do what Murray is doing, but [Fleury] isn't going to change who he is, how he acts in that room or what he does in practice because he's not playing," Osgood said. "He's got the intangibles that you need to be able to deal with that situation. He's won before and he knows how to act. He puts the extra work in at practice, so he knows he's always ready for any situation that he might get thrown into."
Switching goaltenders during the playoffs doesn't always work smoothly, of course. Jonathan Bernier was called into action for the Anaheim Ducks after John Gibson was hurt during the Western Conference finals earlier this month, but promptly allowed four goals on 16 shots in an elimination game. Last year, the St. Louis Blues benched Brian Elliott for Jake Allen after the team was shut out in back-to-back games in the conference finals. Allen helped the Blues beat the San Jose Sharks in Game 4, but gave up four goals in Game 5 before the Blues eventually lost Game 6 with Elliott back in the crease.
The Pittsburgh situation, Osgood said, is "a luxury that a lot of teams don't have." When Fleury was pulled during the Ottawa series, Osgood -- like the rest of the hockey world -- wasn't sure who would, or should, start the next game. "I thought it was 50-50," he said. "I thought they might keep Fleury in for another game, but Murray has earned it."
Although he did it at very different points in his career, Osgood can relate to Murray's position too. Nearly 10 years ago, at the age of 35, Osgood replaced the legendary Hasek. Murray was put in the same position, spelling Fleury, a legend in his own right, at least in Pittsburgh.
"For Murray, I think the easiest thing for him would be just playing," Osgood said. "Answering the questions about him playing instead of Fleury, and all the other stuff that goes with that, that's the difficult part. When you're young, that's the hardest part. Playing is easy. He's played great and his demeanor is perfect."
The duo now has the opportunity to share another Stanley Cup this summer, thanks in part to outstanding play by each goalie when called upon, but also the relationship that the two goalies share. Osgood has been on every side of it during a Cup run, and he keeps going back to the professionalism displayed by both Murray and Fleury.
"Murray is real fortunate to be able to play with a guy like Fleury, who can teach him how to grow as a goalie, not only when he's playing, but also when he's not playing. A lot of guys don't get that when they are at that age," Osgood said. "Does [Fleury] want to be playing? For sure, but he's not going to disrupt the team. It makes it easy on the coach. It's a situation where Pittsburgh is dealing from strength each and every time they put one of them in the net."