Hell yes, a goalie controversy! It took long enough.
Marc-Andre Fleury got yanked 12:52 into last night’s Game 3 loss in Ottawa after giving up four goals. They weren’t all his fault—in any game, it’s rare that every goal is—but despite the bad bounces and the pretty terrible defense in front of him, Fleury was bad. Bad luck doesn’t record a .556 save percentage, no matter the sample size.
The Penguins were apologetic.
“We played like shit,” Matt Cullen said. “No excuses. That’s the bottom line. We didn’t battle. We didn’t work as hard as we needed to. It’s the conference finals. To have that kind of effort is pretty tough to stomach.
“Flower has carried us here. He’s played so well for us, and that makes it even worse that we kind of hung him out to dry.”
There have been, in these playoffs, plenty of bad games for Fleury. Nine goals given up in Games 3 and 4 to Columbus, and nine in Games 5 and 6 against Washington. But Matt Murray wasn’t available to play after aggravating a lower-body injury in warmups before the first game of the postseason, and the Pens weren’t about to dump fleury for 22-year-old Tristan Jarry, with one career start. Goalies and coaches talk all the time about the importance of the confidence that comes with being allowed to have bad games, and by default, Fleury had that confidence. He bounced back from both mini-slumps, and has, even with those setbacks, posted the second-best playoff numbers of his career. He’s also singlehandedly stolen a couple of games that the Penguins had no right winning.
But now that Murray’s healthy, Fleury’s not automatically safe, and the Penguins needn’t trust that Fleury won’t take enough leash to hang the team’s chances. Murray was the clear No. 1 in the regular season, and carried Pittsburgh to a Cup last year, so if he’s good to go, there’s a good argument that he should be the guy. And he says he’s good to go.
“It felt good,” Murray said. “Not the ideal circumstances by any means, but it felt good to try and shake some rust off a little bit. I definitely felt like I hadn’t played in about four weeks. It was good to get that out of the way, and it felt good to get back out there.”
After last night’s game, Mike Sullivan said he hasn’t given any thought to who’ll be the starter for Game 4 on Friday. I find that hard to believe. But Sullivan knows as well as anyone that any decision needn’t be permanent, or even long-lasting. In last year’s ECF, Fleury replaced Murray during a rough Game 4. Then Fleury had a terrible Game 5, and Murray was back in net for Game 6 and the rest of the playoffs.
“We both know the deal and both know how to handle it,” Murray said, referencing last year’s tango. Both have been very OK with the situation—which will resolve itself one way or another this summer, likely via trading Fleury—and it’s always better to have two capable goalies than to have none.
The Penguins are banged up and depleted, and while it’s clichéd to say a team will only go as far as its goaltending will take it, Pittsburgh at this point needs its goaltending to drag it to wins. Murray is, at this point in their respective careers, a better goalie than Fleury. But is Murray totally healthy? Is he cold or rusty? Is Fleury’s hot streak over or can he keep it going like he has twice before this spring? The hardest part of these decisions for Mike Sullivan is that there is very little time left to find out.