Statement made: Fleury lifts Penguins over Capitals

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PITTSBURGH — The biggest issue the Pittsburgh Penguins were facing over the summer was how they were going to handle their two-headed monster in net between Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray.

It was — and still is — a situation that creates a number of short-term and long-term questions.

Which one stays, which one goes, and until one of them does go, who is going to get the bulk of the playing time? Right now the situation is easy. With Murray sidelined for the first month of the season due to a hand injury sustained at the World Cup of hockey, Fleury is back in his familiar position as the team’s starter.

In their season opening 3-2 shootout win over the Washington Capitals on Thursday night, he made a pretty big statement that it is still his net.

Even though Kris Letang did his part to help shut down Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin, and even though Evgeni Malkin scored a big goal late in the second period and Phil Kessel tallied the winner in the shootout, it was Fleury that was the team’s best player on the night.

He was spectacular in turning aside 39 of the 41 shots he faced, including all six shots the Capitals put on him during 3-on-3 overtime period.

None of those saves were bigger than this point-blank stop on a wide open T.J. Oshie right in front of the net.

Fleury being the unquestioned starter on opening night is a bit of a reversal from the way things went in the Penguins’ net just four months ago on their way to winning the Stanley Cup.

With Fleury sidelined at the start of the postseason due to a concussion, Murray took over the starting job and played so well that he never gave up the job, even after Fleury was 100 percent healthy and cleared to play. That performance from Murray, combined with the contract situations facing both players and the looming expansion draft next year, created an offseason storyline centered around the two goalies and the franchise’s long-term plans for the position.

Given the ages of both players (Fleury is nearly a decade older than Murray) it still seems logical to assume that Murray is going to be the long-term solution at the position, assuming he doesn’t have a noticeable regression this year. In the short-term, the Penguins seem happy to let the situation play out and stick with both goalies.

On Thursday, on the same night the Penguins were celebrating their Stanley Cup win, it was Fleury’s opportunity to shine after sitting on the sidelines for almost that entire journey.

“It’s great for Marc,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said after the game.

“We are thrilled with how he battled to get back last year. It was a difficult circumstance for him personally and he has worked extremely hard to get to this point.”

Even though he only played 75 minutes in the playoffs last season he still played a massive role in their success during the season. Before the mid-season coaching change roster overhaul that helped jumpstart their second half and postseason surge, Fleury was pretty much the only player keeping the team afloat in the standings early in the season. It was perhaps the best season of his career as his career continued to do a 180 after a couple of disappointing postseason performances that seemed to leave his future with the team in doubt.

His future with the team is still in doubt at this point, but for entirely different reasons.

Instead of being performance based, it’s all about a cheaper, younger option coming up behind him.

On Thursday, he showed that he is not quite ready to give up that spot just yet.