Playoff goaltending has become an inviting scab in the 2016 playoffs. It's best left alone, but too many teams can't resist the urge to scratch and pick at it until it bursts open and creates a mess.
The Dallas Stars and Anaheim Ducks couldn't figure out what to do with their creases and, at least in the Stars' case, it played a hand in their eliminations. The Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues let their goalies be for two rounds but couldn't help but tinker when the going got tough in their conference final matchups. Now they find themselves on the brink of elimination, evidently with little trust in any of their goaltenders. Each team announced Tuesday it was swapping its original playoff starter back in for a do-or-die for Game 6: Matt Murray for Pittsburgh and Brian Elliott for St. Louis. But is it too little, too late?
The Penguins fiddled with something that may or may not have needed fiddlin', removing rookie Matt Murray for Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 5 of a 2-2 series at home versus the Tampa Bay Lightning. Yes, Fleury is the Pens' all-time wins leader and started in the regular season for them when healthy. Yes, he has a Stanley Cup ring. But his playoff history since winning the Cup in 2009 has been checkered at best, and he hadn't played a game since March 31. It was a bold move to toss Fleury into a tied Eastern Conference final series with that much rust. Especially when Murray had been solid throughout the post-season. His play had slipped a bit, as he'd allowed three or more goals in four of his past six starts entering Game 5, but that happens. Goalies have ups and downs over regular seasons and playoffs. Murray had still won nine times in 13 games overall, posting a .923 save percentage, so it was risky to toss a cold Fleury in for Game 5.
And it showed. Fleury looked stiff and/or got caught cheating on several Tampa goals. No disrespect to Flower, a steady and underrated netminder, but starting him this late in the post-season run looked like a mistake in Game 5. The Penguins will attempt to erase it by reinstalling Murray in the crease for Game 6.
Not that everyone feels starting Fleury in Game 5 was the wrong call, however, including people with far more goaltending expertise than me.
“Fleury got hurt, but it wasn’t from poor play," said TSN analyst and former NHL goalie Jamie McLennan, who believes Fleury should've been named Game 6 starter as well. "I know Murray took over, that’s great, and he gets you there, but his play has started to erode a little bit. So you go back to Fleury, but you give him one chance? Sidney Crosby was bad in Game 5. Do you sit him out? Sometimes people overthink things.
“They’re in a no-win situation tonight unless they win. Say Matt Murray doesn't play very well tonight, and they lose, we’ll question, ‘Why didn’t they start Fleury?' If Fleury would’ve started tonight and lost, we would’ve said, 'You should've gone with Murray.' "
McLennan believes the decision had to go beyond Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. The ramifications of benching Fleury, the team's starter for the past decade, are significant if it goes wrong tonight. There's damage to repair if you sit your stalwart No. 1 goalie in an elimination game and lose. So McLennan theorizes GM Jim Rutherford and even co-owner Mario Lemieux had a say on naming the starting stopper for Game 6.
Sportsnet analyst and ex-NHL goalie Corey Hirsch supported the move to start Fleury in Game 5, as he felt it was a waste to "leave a Stanley Cup winner on the bench," but Hirsch believes Murray is the answer for Game 6 after watching Game 5.
"Murray's the better goalie," Hirsch said. "I hate to say it, but he is. And that's the cycle of hockey and goaltending. Somebody younger and better always comes along. It's just the way it is."
But is the damage done already? Pittsburgh can't unlose that crucial Game 5 at home, and Murray now knows the hook looms if he fights the puck again. The trust has been betrayed.
Same goes for reinstalled starter Brian Elliott and the St. Louis Blues, who trail the Western Conference final 3-2 to the Sharks heading back to San Jose. In 28 regular-season appearances after the calendar turned to 2016, Elliott went 18-4-4. He posted a 2.17 goals-against average, a .935 save percentage and four shutouts. He was the Blues. He ranked among the league leaders in 5-on-5 save percentage for the year. He didn't play as many games as workhorses like Braden Holtby, but Elliott was arguably the league's best puck-stopper on a per-game basis in 2015-16.
And what did that earn him? About 2.5 playoff rounds of leash. He was superb early in the first round against the Blackhawks. He stumbled mid-series, allowing four and five goals in Games 6 and 7, but coach Ken Hitchcock stuck with Elliott and, boom, he delivered a strong Game 7 performance, helping eliminate Chicago. Elliott crumbled in Game 6 of the Central Division final against the Dallas Stars, getting pulled for Jake Allen, but Hitch went back to Elliott for Game 7 and, boom, the Moose came through again, stopping 31 of 32 shots.
Elliott has proven (a) outstanding all season and (b) resilient in these playoffs. So it was a surprise when, after Hitch hooked Elliott 46 minutes into Game 3 following three goals on 14 shots, the Blues turned to Allen. Elliott has come back stronger after his worst performances, but it didn't seem to matter. Allen started Games 4 and 5, splitting them 1-1 and posting an .881 SP. He's been, to quote Hitchcock after the Game 5 defeat at home: "fine."
"They continue to do that to Brian Elliott, and it just doesn't make sense," said Hirsch, who was the Blues' goaltending coach from 2010-11 to 2013-14, including Elliott's breakout 2011-12 season. "If I was him I would say, 'I've got to get out of here. I don't want to play here anymore.' Obviously they don't completely trust him."
The Blues are doing the prudent thing going back to Elliott for Game 6, as he's posted a .954 SP the two other times they faced elimination in these playoffs. But, again, it's worth wondering if the uncertainty will take a mental toll.
“I was disappointed that Brian Elliott didn’t get an opportunity to continue on," McLennan said. "He had been so good in the playoffs. He’s the reason why they beat Chicago. The defending champs went home because of him. And you start to erode a little bit and have an off game, and start to show some fatigue in your game, and you’re going to go to Allen? I didn’t like that. And that’s no slight on Jake Allen. I think Jake is the goalie of the future there. But Elliott had been so good.
"I just disagreed with the quick trigger. And what happens is you get the quick trigger because you've got two capable guys. If you have one guy, there’s no question, but with two, I don't think it’s productive. You’re always questioning, 'Why did you go to this other guy?' It not only creates confusion and uncertainty with the fan base and the media, but also with the players. Because the players are going, ‘Who the hell’s starting tonight?’ "
Instead of focusing solely on stopping the puck, Elliott will begin Game 6 knowing another hook is around the corner if he struggles in the first period. It can't be the best thing for a goaltender's focus, can it? Should the Blues and Pens fail to come back in these series, at least some of the blame should fall on the flip-flopping in net.
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