The Penguins’ Game 1 success granted them a unique opportunity to rest injured Marc-Andre Fleury longer than they may have otherwise.
The Pittsburgh Penguins could not have wished a better Game 1 result into existence than what occurred Wednesday night versus the New York Rangers. The Pens won on home ice, Patric Hornqvist notched a hat trick, and captain Sidney Crosby exploded the highlight reels with a beautiful breakaway goal.
And between the pipes is where things really broke Pittsburgh’s way. Third-string goaltender Jeff Zatkoff was forced into duty for Game 1 with Marc-Andre Fleury (concussion) and Matt Murray (head) unavailable. Zatkoff had a strong case for jitters considering he’d never played a minute of NHL playoff hockey before. To make matters worse, he’d start opposite future Hall of Famer Henrik Lundqvist.
But the adage, “that’s why they play the games” rang true Wednesday. Lundqvist lasted one period. A stick in the eye through his mask forced him out of the game after he returned briefly. Zatkoff was superb in the Pittsburgh net, turning aside 35 of 37 shots and making several bookmark-worthy saves.
Game 1 was a basket of puppies for the Penguins – and it creates a conundrum for Game 2. Starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury practised Friday and has a chance to return for Game 2. But have the Penguins suddenly gained the luxury of resting Fleury at least one more game, even if he’s cleared to play?
The court of public opinion appears to believe so. I polled Twitter after Game 1 and received 1,227 submissions. The result:
Does Zatkoff acquitting himself well + Lundqvist injury = don’t rush Fleury back?
— Matt Larkin (@THNMattLarkin) April 14, 2016
The Penguins entered the post-season playing as well as any team in the NHL. Their possession play became dominant under coach Mike Sullivan, and they won 14 of their final 16 regular season games in 2015-16. That was without center Evgeni Malkin and, for some of those games, Fleury, who was sidelined with his second concussion of the season.
Now the Pens lead their first-round series 1-0 against a Rangers team missing its captain and best defenseman, Ryan McDonagh. Lundqvist, who saw a specialist for the swelling around his eye, returned to practice Friday and has a good chance to play in Game 2. If he does, though, there’s no guarantee the eye doesn’t bother him.
Add all those factors together and it seems the deck is stacked against the Rangers right now. Especially if we consider Zatkoff should feel even less nervous for Game 2. The Penguins are playing so well right now that they have a strong chance to win any game with or without Fleury. Zatkoff and Murray were 13-9-2 this season. If Zatkoff is fresh off his best, most important NHL performance and the Rangers are already shorthanded, would it not makes sense to rest Fleury until at least Game 3, which goes down Tuesday? Malkin (upper body) has a chance to rejoin the Pens lineup for Game 2, giving them a significant boost in his own right.
We can’t exaggerate the significance of Fleury sustaining two concussions in one season. One came in December and the other in late March. While they aren’t close enough together to qualify as second impact syndrome, the danger to a player’s long-term health nonetheless increases dramatically with multiple head injuries sustained in a short period. Bringing Fleury back too quickly, even if he’s cleared, could aggravate symptoms or, worse yet, risk a third concussion in a span of four months. Second (third?) impact syndrome could occur. That would be catastrophic for Fleury and the Penguins. We saw what it did to Crosby.
Ultimately, Pittsburgh is playing to win the Stanley Cup, not just one round. For that reason, resting Fleury another game might actually be the gutsier call. That’s going for it, as it means thinking long-term and realizing a healthy Fleury for the balance of the post-season gives his team the best chance to win. On top of that, Fleury’s safety is paramount, and a few extra days before returning can only help.
The Penguins find themselves in a fortunate position, up 1-0 against a depleted team. Now it’s time to capitalize on that luxury. Rest Fleury.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin