The Pittsburgh Penguins finally answered the question that everyone had stored in the backs of their minds when the Stanley Cup Playoffs began: Will Marc-Andre Fleury start a game in the playoffs?
The answer is yes. Head coach Mike Sullivan announced on Sunday morning that rookie Matt Murray (9-4, 9.23 SV%, 2.33 GAA in 13 postseason games) will be on the bench for Sunday night’s pivotal Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Fleury’s ascension back to the top of the depth chart comes a game after he replaced Murray in the third period of Game 4’s 4-3 loss. Murray started the game and allowed all four goals on 30 shots in just two periods of action. At the time Murray was replaced, the Penguins trailed 4-0.
Looking back at the game, it’s hard to fault Murray for the game’s first two goals. Ryan Callahan’s opening goal was a deflection on a shot from the point, and Andej Sustr was left unmarked as he streaked in to score on a nice pass from Nikita Kucherov. However, the last two goals exposed Murray’s weakness in dealing with pucks that move cross-ice.
Jonathan Drouin scored on what was essentially an empty net after Murray lost where the puck was. Drouin’s centering pass for Ondrej Palat ricocheted back out to Drouin, but Murray had already committed to defending Palat and left the Lightning winger with an open target. The fourth goal was the ugliest of them; Murray was beaten by a pass that went through the crease and off the leg of Tyler Johnson before it floated into the net past Murray’s outstretched glove.
It was a bad night for Murray, but it probably would have been a bad night for most goalies who have seen 30 shots in just two periods. The Penguins hadn’t even conceded 30 shots in a game since their Second Round clincher against Washington, when Murray faced 39 shots in a game that went into overtime.
And now for the first time since suffering a concussion in the waning days of the regular season, Marc-Andre Fleury will be called upon to start for the Penguins. The same Marc-Andre Fluery who melted down against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012. The same one who nearly cost his team a playoff series against Columbus in 2014, and then followed up that performance with a soft goaltending performance as the Penguins lost to the Rangers in the second round . To put it succinctly, the playoffs have not been kind to Fleury in recent meetings.
This move doesn’t come early in the series. It comes at the crossroad of the series. The best-of-seven set has been reduced to a best-of-three. A loss tonight for the Penguins means that elimination is in play for Game 6. If Fleury goes out and makes saves, and does enough to win the game, then this will all blow over even if Pittsburgh were to lose the series.
But if the Marc-Andre Fleury shows up tonight is the one that Penguins fans are used to seeing in defeat instead of the version of the goaltender that helped win them a Cup seven years ago, there will be questions for both the goalie and Mike Sullivan.