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Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Murray and their lasting friendship formed in Pittsburgh

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The text was short and sweet, but it was the start of a friendship that continues today despite a difference in uniforms.

Matt Murray had just won the 2014-15 “Red” Garrett Memorial Award as AHL rookie of the year when his phone buzzed. It was a text from Marc-Andre Fleury, who was coming off of his 10th NHL season. It was a simple message congratulating him on a great season that ended with “see you in training camp.”

The two didn’t realize that a little more than a year from that moment they would be helping the Pittsburgh Penguins to the first of two Stanley Cups — two championships that both would play an integral part in as the franchise slowly experienced a changing of the guard in goal.

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On Thursday afternoon Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan made it official. Murray would return from a lower-body injury that’s kept him out of the lineup since Nov. 27 to start against the Vegas Golden Knights. It was a piece of news that completed the intrigue into the first meeting between the two teams this season. Earlier this week, Fleury played his first game in over two months after dealing with a concussion. It was a warm-up game for the real main event — a game against his old club and the chance to stare down at the other end of the rink and see his former mentee between the pipes.

“It’s exciting for me. He was definitely my mentor, the biggest mentor I’ve had in my pro career,” Murray said on Wednesday. “I wish I had more time to study under him and more time to be around him, but unfortunately we’re on different sides now.”

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The writing was on the wall at the start of the 2016-17 NHL season. With Murray’s emergence during the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs and an expansion draft looming in June 2017, it was clear that Fleury’s time in Pittsburgh was coming to an end. And while other general managers may have tried to swing a deal in order to get something in return for the player, Jim Rutherford, a former goaltender himself, knew how vital it was for the team to have a two-headed monster. He saw how important it was during the run the previous spring, and with the Penguins going for back-to-back championships it wasn’t going to happen without two trustworthy goaltenders that Sullivan could call upon.

Fleury sticking around through the end of last season proved vital as he grabbed the starter’s reins again after Murray got hurt before their first playoff game. As he did the the previous postseason, Murray regained the No. 1 job and led the Penguins to a second straight Cup.

All of that doesn’t happen if Murray isn’t sharing the net with a veteran like Fleury, and learning as much on the ice as he was off of it.

“He’s been unbelievable. I don’t know where I would be without Fleury’s mentorship, his advice,” Murray told me after the 2016 Cup Final. “There was a couple of times where I was struggling throughout the playoffs and even during the season, and I think that’s normal for a rookie. This is my first time in the league and first time going through this.

“Of course I had some ups and some downs. He was there all the way through to help me through the downs. I’ll remember our friendship forever.”

While some may have a wanted to paint an icy rivalry between the two, it was never like that for them. They wanted to help each other, which in turn would benefit the team. When it was crystal clear Fleury’s days in Pittsburgh were numbered, it was about supporting the young goaltender to handle the rigors of being a full-time No. 1.

When a lower-body injury took out Murray before their first game against Columbus in Round 1 last spring, the final love-in for Fleury began. He helped the Penguins dispatch the Blue Jackets in five games and once again knock out the Washington Capitals in seven games. After Pittsburgh dropped two of the first three games of the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators, Sullivan turned back to a healthy Murray, who would start their final 10 games, which ended with another championship.

Fleury may not have finished the job last June in Nashville, but he was a big reason why they were there in the first place, and a huge reason why Murray, the one in net when the clock hit 0:00 at Bridgestone Arena in Game 6, was prepared for the moment.

The celebration in Nashville was one of the final times Murray and Fleury were together. Everyone knew it was Fleury’s last ride and the emotions poured out from his teammates. And when Fleury did his final Cup raise as a Penguin, he gave it a kiss and turned to seek out Murray. He would find him and after exchanging words, he handed off the trophy to his crease mate.

That decision will stay with Murray forever.

“It means everything to me, honestly,” Murray said after Fleury’s Cup pass. “The fact that he handed me the Cup there that was one of the most special moments in my life, for sure.”

***

Ask Fleury what was special about his time sharing a crease with Murray and he’ll tell you “winning.” After a dinner with former teammates Wednesday night, they’ll be opponents on Thursday inside T-Mobile Arena. There will be some fun trash talk during the game from both the Penguins and the goaltender himself, who’s known to dish it out pretty good. Then the two teams will go their separate ways until Feb. 6 when Vegas travels to Pittsburgh for the first time. That’s when there will be an outpouring of love from the city where he grew up as a professional and began raising a family.

And barring any unforseen circumstances, one of Fleury’s biggest fans will be on the other side of the ice once again and memories of their time winning back-to-back championships will resurface.

“That’s what it’s all about. Being able to share it with a good young goaltender who’s going to have a good future,” Fleury said. “I was fortunate to share that with him.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Report: Blackhawks concerned Crawford could miss remainder of season

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Here is some less than encouraging news for the Chicago Blackhawks.

According to a report from Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun Times on Tuesday night, there is some growing concern within the Blackhawks organization that starting goaltender Corey Crawford could miss the remainder of the season due to experiencing vertigo-like symptoms for the second time in his career.

Crawford has been sidelined since before Christmas due to an upper-body injury, but the team has been quiet on specifics other than to say publicly that they expect him to return this season.

Over the past few years Crawford has become one of the NHL’s top goalies and when he has been on the ice this season has been absolutely stellar for the Blackhawks. Given the current state of their defense and the rate that they give up shots he has become one of the team’s most important players and the one that seems to drive their success more than any other.

[Related: Corey Crawford has become the Blackhawks’ most important player]

In his absence the team has leaned on Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass. Both have played about as well as could have been expected, but they aren’t Crawford and there is a noticeable drop in play at the position when he is not in there.

In 26 games this season Crawford is 16-9-2 with a .929 save percentage.

As of Tuesday night the Blackhawks are on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture, sitting three points back of the Minnesota Wild. They also have the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche sitting between them.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Rick Nash snaps out of slump, powers Rangers to huge win

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The New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers are two of the teams in the middle of the free-for-all that is the Eastern Conference playoff race that had five teams separated by just three points heading into Tuesday night.

Both teams had been rolling in opposite directions over the past week with the Flyers having won four in a row and five of their past six, while the Rangers were riding a three-game losing skid and had lost four out of five.

Their past two losses coming out of the bye week were especially ugly, losing to the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins (two other teams they are competing with) by a combined score of 12-4.

Both the Rangers’ and Flyers’ streaks came to an end in their game on Tuesday with the Rangers picking up a huge 5-1 win.

Rick Nash was the big star for the Rangers on Tuesday with a pair of goals, including a breakaway goal in the first period to tie the game at one after the Rangers gave up an early goal. It was a big performance for Nash because he had been mired in a brutal slump that had seen him go 12 consecutive games without a goal. He also had just one assist during that stretch. That slump has contributed to a down year offensively that has him on track for one of the least productive seasons of his career.

But he came through in a big way on Tuesday to help give the Rangers two huge points and move them three points ahead of the Flyers. The Flyers still have one game in hand while the two teams will still play three more games the rest of the season.

The Rangers’ win on Tuesday, combined with the Islanders’ 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils, moves the Rangers back into the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference for the time being.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Predators place forward Viktor Arvidsson on injured reserve

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The Nashville Predators have placed forward Viktor Arvidsson on injured reserve with a lower-body injury and recalled forward Frederick Gaudreau from the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals.

The Predators made the move Tuesday afternoon.

Arvidsson was helped off the ice Monday during practice, and The Tennessean reports he tested himself during Tuesday morning’s skate.

The forward ranks third on the Predators with 13 goals and fourth with 27 points. The Predators already have Filip Forsberg on injured reserve with an upper-body injury.

Gaudreau has played 18 games with the Predators with three assists. He had 14 points in 21 games with the Admirals this season.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

WATCH LIVE: Philadelphia Flyers at New York Rangers

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Tuesday night, as the New York Rangers host the Philadelphia Flyers at 7:00 p.m. ET.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Rangers

Rick NashMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich
Mats ZuccarelloJ.T. Miller – Vinni Lettieri
Jimmy VeseyDavid DesharnaisPaul Carey
Michael Grabner – Peter Holland – Jesper Fast

Ryan McDonaghNick Holden
Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk
Marc StaalSteven Kampfer

Startling goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

[Flyers look to push winning streak to five games against Rangers]

Flyers

Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny
Michael RafflValtteri FilppulaJakub Voracek
Jordan WealNolan PatrickWayne Simmonds
Taylor LeierScott LaughtonJori Lehtera

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere
Robert HaggAndrew MacDonald
Brandon ManningRadko Gudas

Startling goalie: Brian Elliott