The Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves locked into the playoffs for an 11th straight season. For nine of those seasons, it was for certain that Marc-Andre Fleury would be the team’s starter in game one of the playoffs. It seemed year 10 would be no different. We all found out how quickly that changed.
After sustaining a concussion with only a handful of weeks left in the season, Fleury gave way to Matt Murray.
Murray did enough to earn tons of trust down the stretch. A Wayne Simmonds cheap shot in the season finale gave Murray a concussion. Both goalies had been shelved by concussions. We all know Jeff Zatkoff admirably filled in for Murray and Fleury for two games and split the home portion of the Rangers series 1-1. Murray returned in game three of that series and only ceded the crease to Fleury once the rest of the way helping to win the Penguins a fourth Cup.
This season, things seem to be different.
Instead of both goalies being hurt, the Penguins face injuries to a multitude of top players including Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Carl Hagelin, Jake Guentzel and Trevor Daley just to name a few. They are playing with as Wilkes/Barre ridden of a roster as they have in recent memory. Forward Conor Sheary is listed as day to day with a lower body injury that he sustained Sunday against the Flyers.
On top of injuries, the Penguins face another problem. Amongst the fan population, people love having two NHL caliber goalies who have both carried their team’s to Stanley Cups. I’ll be the first to tell you, things couldn’t be worse for the Penguins in that regard at this very moment.
I love both of my goalies equally. They’re both capable of shutting down the other team and making the quality saves needed to bail the Penguins out.
Murray, the clear starter on the season, has really began struggling as of late. He has given up four or more goals in four of his last seven starts. In the three games he didn’t allow more than four goals, he gave up a combined 2 goals. He’s been very streaky as of the past few weeks.
Fleury has been on the upswing lately.
Since allowing 0 goals on 28 shots in relief of Murray during the Sabres game back on March 5, Fleury has one shutout and two 40+ save preformances. It is the sharpest he’s looked all season and there’s no doubt it’s because the trade deadline has passed and he can play freely with no doubt about his immediate future.
Both goalies want the opportunity to win their team a second consecutive Stanley Cup title but head coach Mike Sullivan would be foolish to even consider not naming one goalie his starter and sticking to it.
This is no longer Fleury being backed up by the likes of Danny Sabourin or John Curry. This is Murray AND Fleury constantly having to look over their shoulder knowing that the slightest screw up could cost them playing time. Do you want that in the playoffs? I sure as hell don’t.
There has never been a worse time for this controversy to become a controversy again. Murray had all but put his name on the starting sheet for a solid period of time. Then he started fluttering and giving way to more Fleury, who’s done enough to play himself back into the starting role the same way Murray may be playing out of it.
It’s not as though either goalie has much of a supporting cast on defense either. Three of the Penguins’ six usual starters (Daley, Letang, Olli Maatta) are out due to injury. Despite the admirable performances from the 14 total defenseman that the Penguins have employed this season, they’d love to get healthy.
Before trading for Mark Streit and Ron Hainsey (also currently injured), the Penguins only real NHL defenseman were Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole, and Justin Schultz. With guys such as Chad Ruhwedel and Cameron Gaunce having to play it makes the Penguins goalies work harder not having your top guys in there and for an extended period of time.
But neither goalie has had to play with less talent. Over the course of March, both Murray and Fleury have played with as many as three top NHL defenseman out and Fleury has outperformed Murray.
There are always pros and cons to every situation. The NHL is no different.
When looking at Murray, he’s already carried a Stanley Cup champion clear through to hoisting the title on opposing soil. Teams began exposing his glove hand, most noticeably during the Washington series, and it was becoming clear that was the key to beating Murray. He’s still having trouble making that adjustment this season, which is still considered his rookie year.
With Fleury, the Penguins are getting the more productive and consistent goalie at the moment, but come playoff time who do you get?
It’s truthfully been a while since Fleury had a real playoff meltdown. The Philadelphia Series is something no Pittsburgh fan ever wants to talk about. His last struggles came in the 2014 playoffs against the Columbus Blue Jackets, where he almost gave Columbus a chance to take the series to seven games and quite possibly steal the series right from underneath Pittsburgh.
Fast forward to 2017 where it’s almost a formality that these two teams will meet again in round one. Do you trust Fleury to have shaken off his fear of Columbus in the playoffs? Can he withstand the rattling that the damn cannon in Columbus does when he gets scored on?
That Columbus team is nothing like this one. This Columbus team would almost assuredly drag the series out to seven games. And even if the Penguins were fortunate enough to come out of that series alive, they’d likely face a hungry Washington crew eager to feast on the Penguins’ worn down and beaten up bodies.
There is a lot to consider with this goalie situation and Sullivan has to be careful with how he manages it. Neither goalie can feel threatened if they are given the job. Even if they put the Penguins in a 3-0 series hole, they’ve got to stick with them. Act as if you have the best goalie in the NHL and your backup is some run of the mill, cheap alternative that’ll only play in an emergency because no playoff team can afford to enter the playoffs not knowing who their goalie is.
If April rolls around and the Penguins are alternating goalies like they did early on in the year, you can put your last dollar on the fact that the Capitals may finally get to the third round, and possibly further, this year.