For the past 35 days, Marc-Andre Fleury has been one of the biggest stories of the post-season. The Penguins’ longtime starter-turned-backup was thrust into the spotlight when Matt Murray fell injured ahead of the opening game of the playoffs, and it was up to Fleury to take the reins in goal and attempt to guide Pittsburgh on their pursuit of back-to-back Stanley Cups. And for 35 days, Fleury was rock solid, putting his name into the Conn Smythe Trophy discussion thanks to stellar numbers and a trip to the Eastern Conference final.
But on Day 36, Fleury may have seen his outstanding run come to an end. In less than 13 minutes of play in Wednesday’s Game 3, the Ottawa Senators put nine shots on Fleury. Four of them found the back of the net. The first strike came 48 seconds into the contest from Mike Hoffman. Roughly 10 minutes later, it was Marc Methot who scored his second goal of the playoffs. Derick Brassard got in on the action less than two minutes later. Just 24 seconds after that, it was Zack Smith who slipped a wraparound into a yawning cage.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan had seen enough after the fourth goal, giving Murray the nod and Fleury the hook. Murray, who had returned from injury in time for Game 7 against the Washington Capitals, proceeded to stop all but one of the 20 shots he faced across nearly 47 minutes of play. It wasn’t enough, however. The Senators clung to their lead, skating away with a 5-1 victory and an unexpected 2-1 series lead. And that brings us to Game 4.
As one could expect, the question posed to Sullivan post-game was what the change in goal, and the poor showing from Fleury, meant for Friday night’s contest. Sullivan went with the tried and true answer, saying he hadn’t “even given any consideration to that at this point,” meaning that it’s unlikely we’ll know the Game 4 starter until the Penguins practice Friday. Even then, it could remain a mystery until the teams hit the ice that evening because this choice could be one of the biggest of Sullivan’s entire coaching career. It’s not one he’s entirely unfamiliar with, however.
Last season, in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final, Murray had a mediocre outing after being only so-so through the first three games against the Tampa Bay Lightning. After allowing four goals against, Murray was yanked, Fleury came in, made seven stops to end the outing and the series wound up tied at two games apiece. When it came time for Game 5, Sullivan went with the shakeup in goal, throwing Fleury out to start. The result was an overtime loss in which Fleury allowed four goals on 25 shots and a 3-2 series deficit. Thus, it was back to Murray in Games 6 and 7, both of which the Penguins won. But Sullivan’s decision is harder this time around for a number of reasons.
First, there’s the way Fleury has played this post-season. To say he’s in the conversation for the Conn Smythe would be to undersell it. He was and still is a frontrunner for playoff MVP if the Penguins make it to the final. Before last night’s game, Fleury had turned in a .931 save percentage through the first two rounds, second only to Pekka Rinne of the goaltenders still alive in the playoffs. Fleury was also remarkable in the second round against the Capitals and, ultimately, one of the biggest difference makers in the series.
What also has to be considered is the health of Murray should Sullivan choose to change things up in goal. The nature of the injury Murray suffered has never been disclosed and there’s no telling if he’s entirely healed or choosing instead to battle through whatever is or was ailing him. Murray’s performance in the final two frames Wednesday was solid, though, and he noted that the 40 minutes of action allowed him to shake off any rust after missing the past month.
But above all else is the fact Sullivan’s decision could end up impacting the series in a big way. Losing Game 4 would be a serious blow to the Penguins’ chances against the Senators, especially as Pittsburgh would find themselves in a 3-1 hole against a team that has the ability to score early and sit on a lead. And if Ottawa has three games to close out the Eastern Conference final, there’s a good chance they manage to do so.So, Sullivan has to choose wisely. Maybe the best way to do that, though, is not overthink the decision. That means sticking with Fleury.
Murray may have come in and played well Wednesday night, but Fleury has been excellent for more than four weeks at this point. One game doesn’t tell the tale of his post-season. That’s especially true when it’s coming on the heels of a 23-save shutout in Game 2 and when it follows a three-game run in which Fleury turned in a .977 SP, two shutouts and allowed two goals against on nearly 90 shots. Though it’s not on Fleury alone, it’s also worth noting that he’s only lost consecutive games once this post-season.
Fleury has also given Sullivan no reason, not one, to doubt his ability to come back from a bad outing. Following Wednesday, Fleury’s three worst games of the playoffs have been Game 4 against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, Game 6 against the Capitals and, obviously, Game 3 against the Senators. In Game 5 against Columbus, after allowing five goals and posting an .853 SP one game earlier, Fleury stopped a whopping 49 of 51 shots to almost singlehandedly guide Pittsburgh to the second round. And, after getting beaten five times and posting an .808 SP against Washington in Game 6, Fleury stonewalled the Capitals in the seventh and deciding game, stopping all 29 shots he faced.
Fleury has earned the right to get back in the crease for Game 4 given the way he has performed since the opening game of the playoffs. No goaltender this post-season has faced more rubber and the truth is that without Fleury the Penguins may not have even made it this far. He almost completely shut down the Blue Jackets’ attack in three of five contests, he absolutely flustered the Capitals’ offense, stealing at least two games in the second round, and, heading into Wednesday, had only failed to stop two of the Senators’ 58 shots.
Sullivan doesn’t have to give his netminder a long leash, but after all he’s done this post-season, Fleury deserves the chance to bounce back. He’s guided the Penguins this far, and now is the time for Fleury to prove that he still has what it takes to power Pittsburgh through another round.
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