Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final was the first game Marc-Andre Fleury had started this post-season and the first time he had been in goal since the final day of March. After a rocky performance in the late stages of Sunday’s game, though, Fleury could find himself back on the sidelines.
Fleury allowed four goals against on 25 shots Sunday evening, which included a questionable game-tying goal following some poor rebound control and an overtime winner that came before fans could even get settled in their seats for the extra frame. And though Tyler Johnson’s backside was in the right place to deflect home Jason Garrison’s shot for that winning goal, it’s arguable the game shouldn’t have even made it to overtime. Even Penguins coach Mike Sullivan admitted Fleury didn’t look as great as the game wore on.
“I thought Marc made some big saves for us, especially early in the game,” Sullivan said. “I thought he really settled into the game in the first period and made some real big saves. He might have got away from it a little bit as the game went on. And to Marc's defense, it's a tough situation when you haven't played in a long time and you get thrown into a high stakes environment like that.”
And with Fleury’s late-game performance having the Penguins facing elimination for the first time this post-season, Sullivan isn’t going to be naming a starting netminder for Game 6 quite yet. When asked, he said that answer would be coming ahead of Tuesday’s crucial contest.
“This is an imperfect situation,” Sullivan said. “I've said this all along. It's hard for all of us. We wish the circumstances were different, but they're not. That's the nature of the business that we're in. All we can do is make the best decisions that we think we can to help the team win, and players got to control what they can and put their best foot forward, and that's what we did.”
Sullivan backed up Fleury again, though, calling him a terrific goaltender and pointing out the netminder’s stellar regular season performance as a big reason why Pittsburgh has made it to the position they have thus far. However, that doesn’t answer the pressing question, which is which netminder will get the call Tuesday. And if that’s Fleury, he’ll have to be much better, and the likelihood is that he will be.
In the 58 games Fleury played during the regular season, he only posted a save percentage worse than his .840-mark in Sunday’s game five times. And in all but one of those five games, he bounced back the next time out with a SP of .947-plus, including one shutout and two games above the .960-mark. Those are vast improvements and the type of response Pittsburgh wants to see out of their goaltender. The thing is, though, his shaky play in Game 5 is the type of thing that hasn’t really been seen from counterpart Matt Murray this post-season.
Murray has undeniably had bad moments — the two late goals against in the opening period of Game 2 stand out — but he’s turned in pretty impressive starts almost every single time he’s taken the net this post-season. Like Fleury, Murray has shown the ability to bounce back, too. But the concern now could be that Murray will have the added pressure of watching over his shoulder. Does one bad goal mean Fleury takes the net? And how does Murray react to the pressure of an elimination game, something he’s never faced before in the NHL?
There’s no answer to that question, at least not yet. But Sullivan said he’s thinking about, and there will be a lot to think about.
“All things considered, we're trying to make the best decisions that we can, that we think give the team the best chance to win, and that's what we do, and that's what we go with,” Sullivan said. “We'll continue to do that.”