Does Murray's success mean that Fleury's days in Pittsburgh are numbered?

CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- If you weren't listening closely on Monday night, you might have sworn that the crowd at Consol Energy Center was chanting "Fleury, Fleury, Fleury."

It's a chant that's been heard dozens of times since Marc-Andre Fleury first pulled on a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey a few months after they made him the first-overall pick in the 2003 draft.

But on Monday night it was not "Fleury, Fleury, Fleury" that the fans at Consol were chanting during the latter stages of Game 3 of their team's second-round playoff series against the Washington Capitals -- it was "Murray, Murray, Murray."

Even Fleury, sitting at the end of the Penguins bench, heard the shouts of encouragement and admiration for 21-year-old netminder Matt Murray as the Penguins hung on for a 3-2 victory that gave them a 2-1 series lead heading into Game 4 Wednesday night, 8 ET, in Pittsburgh.

"Yeah, I heard it," Fleury said with a smile after an optional workout at the Penguins' suburban practice facility on Tuesday. "It was loud. It was good for him, but I didn't think too much [about] anything else of it."

But it was also hard not to miss the unmistakable sense of a changing of the guard before our very eyes.

It started when Fleury went down with his second concussion of the season at the end of March. Murray, who had been sensational in the American Hockey League, continued his strong play in relief of Fleury down the stretch. And when Fleury still could not go at the start of the playoffs, Murray came on in Game 3 of the first round after battling his own injury issues and has been all but unstoppable. He is 5-1 with a 1.79 GAA and a .944 save percentage during the playoffs.

Murray, who is quiet and virtually without ego in spite of a fiercely competitive streak, talks with admiration about the support Fleury has shown him since he was recalled from the minors in February. Murray described how, one night, Fleury jokingly brushed off Murray's shoulders after Murray had endured a rough outing against the Buffalo Sabres. It was an important reminder not to worry too much, that these things will happen.

Fleury, who was cleared to play on Monday, now has a bird's-eye view of the future of goaltending for this franchise -- a role that he has played, with only minor exceptions, for more than a decade.

"You know, that's fine," Fleury, 31, said. "I haven't played in a month now, and what's important is us winning. Matty's given us a chance. He's been in there. I'll stay ready, I'll encourage him. It's not a personal game, it's a team game. I'll try my best to contribute whatever I'm doing just to help us win."

The Capitals finally brought it in this series, firing 85 shots in Murray's direction in Game 3. The 21-year-old calmly finished with 47 saves and stole the game for the Penguins.

It's what franchise goalies do.

Now Murray will have to be even better in Game 4, as the Penguins will be without Kris Letang, who was suspended for one game after his dangerous hit on Marcus Johansson in Game 3.

In the space of a couple of weeks, Murray has morphed from an unknown rookie into a franchise cornerstone, a remarkable transformation that surprised many -- but not, apparently, Capitals coach Barry Trotz.

"I can just say he's very talented," Trotz said Tuesday. "We knew that going in. It's not a surprise to us. He's looking like a franchise goaltender."

Could we see Fleury regain his familiar position as the starter? Sure. But the consensus is that if Murray was going to crack under the pressure, we'd have seen the fissures by now. And there are none.

Monday's key victory when the Pens were far from their best seemed to make that point emphatically. Even if Fleury does return to action for whatever reason this postseason, it appears that the dye has been cast. If it's not already the case, this is going to be Matt Murray's team.

It's not just Murray's talent and youthfulness that is complicating the situation. At some point the NHL will likely hold an expansion draft, and while there will be specific rules governing which players can be exposed, it seems inconceivable that the Penguins would not make keeping Murray in the fold a priority -- even if it means opening the door to Fleury's exit.

"There's no dilemma," said one NHL executive of the choice between which goalie to protect. "Murray is younger, better, cheaper."

So it appears that Fleury's days in Pittsburgh might be numbered even though he has three years left on his contract, with an annual cap hit of $5.75 million. He has a no-move and limited no-trade clause, and at some point he might have to come to the realization that to remain a starter in the NHL he'll to accept a trade elsewhere or risk being exposed and possibly taken by a potential expansion team.

"Based on playoff body of work and age, they have to keep Murray," said longtime NHL executive and ESPN.com contributor Frank Provenzano. "If I was a team trying to manage this, I would be proactively asking early for acceptable destination lists from my goalie who is not on my protected list once the rules get sorted out."

While in his prime, Fleury won 30 postseason games over two playoff years, in 2008 and 2009. He is a Stanley Cup champion coming off another solid season for the Penguins, notwithstanding his injury issues.

He can still be an elite goaltender in the NHL. But perhaps not with the only team that he has ever known.

"I love to play," Fleury said. "I love the game. I think those games [in the playoffs] are the most fun in the year, the most intense, the toughest games to win. When you do win, it's such a great feeling.

"Yeah, I wish I could play," he added, "but that's how it is and that's fine."

As for the future, well, that's something that will have to be sorted out down the road.

"I'm not there yet," Fleury said. "My focus is still on winning this year. That's where it has to be. And when that's done, then we'll see."