It’s not exactly a goaltending controversy, but the Pittsburgh Penguins have a decision to make going forward.
Marc-Andre Fleury, who started 58 games during the regular season, has been cleared to return to action after suffering a concussion in late-March, but youngster Matt Murray is having the best post-season of any Penguin. And after an other-worldly Game 3 performance by Murray, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan has to choose which netminder to go with for Game 4 and beyond.
The obvious answer is that Sullivan should ride the hot hand, Murray, and throw the 21-year-old back in goal until a switch is absolutely necessary. Murray has a 5-1 record, 1.79 goals-against average and an impressive .944 save percentage. The only game Murray has lost all post-season came in overtime thanks to a T.J. Oshie wraparound that narrowly crossed the goal line in Game 1 against the Capitals. Though you could argue that contest should have never gotten to overtime, Murray was only narrowly out-duelled by potential Vezina Trophy-winner Braden Holtby.
But to suggest there’s no reason for Sullivan to have any doubt about Murray would be to overlook entirely that Fleury is coming off of arguably the best regular season of his career. Of the 23 goaltenders who played at least 2,000 minutes at 5-on-5, Fleury ranked sixth with a .933 SP, and his 2.29 GAA and .921 SP at all strengths were the best marks of his career. There’s also the fact that Fleury helped the Penguins to a Stanley Cup final in 2008 and was in goal when Pittsburgh won the whole thing in 2009. Experience, whether you believe in its impact or not, is a factor. So who does Sullivan go with in Game 4?
Even with Fleury healthy, ready and in the midst of maybe the best season of his career, the best bet is to keep with Murray. The 21-year-old already has a feel for the series and any questions Sullivan may have had about the netminder following Game 1’s loss have surely fallen by the wayside thanks to Murray’s 70 saves on the past 73 shots he’s faced. There’s more to it than his performance in the past two games, though.
Over the 19 games Murray has played this season, he has posted a .943 SP at 5-on-5. That’s a small sample size, absolutely, but it’s not exactly as if Murray is on an Andrew Hammond-like hot streak. Murray is coming off of a rookie professional season that will go down as one of the greatest in AHL history. Murray turned in a 1.58 GAA, .941 SP and a mind-blowing 12 shutouts to earn himself rookie of the year, top goaltender, all-rookie and all-star team awards. He followed that up with a 2.31 GAA, .931 SP and four shutouts in 30 appearances with the AHL Penguins this season before becoming an NHL regular in the back half of the campaign.
Of course, the decision to run with Murray is made easier when Fleury is supporting his rookie counterpart, and the veteran netminder has done just that. Fleury acknowledged following Game 3 that he’d love to be in goal, but, cliche or not, pointed out the only thing that matters is the Penguins continue to win. It’s no doubt tough for Fleury to watch from the bench, and it almost goes without saying that if Fleury would have been healthy for the Penguins’ playoff-opener that he would have been in goal for every Pittsburgh post-season contest to this point. But by Fleury’s own admission, Murray has been excellent and the Penguins are winning. Hard to argue with results, especially when those results have been so convincing.
Sullivan had to go with Murray when he was the top healthy option, and when he got his chance, Murray secured the No. 1 job. It’s Murray’s job to lose now, and that’s exactly how it should be until Sullivan feels otherwise. That could be as soon as Game 5 or that time might not come at all. For the time being, though, it seems Sullivan’s best bet is to keep trotting Murray out as his starter.