Penguins Crease Conundrum: Fleury or Murray?
Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan plans to announce his starting goaltender for Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday morning, and it won’t be an easy decision.
With the Penguins facing elimination for the first time in these Stanley Cup Playoffs, Sullivan must choose between Matt Murray, a 21-year-old rookie who backstopped Pittsburgh past the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals in the first two rounds, and veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, who returned from a nearly two-month absence to replace Murray in Game 4 but struggled at times as the Game 5 starter.
There may not be a right choice. There certainly isn’t an easy one.
As good as Murray was going into the Eastern Conference Final, his play has been up and down since it started, with a .889 save percentage against the Lightning so far and some signs his game has been trending in the wrong direction since Game 5 against the Capitals.
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As for Fleury, there were enough signs of the overaggressiveness that plagued past playoff struggles to wonder if Sullivan made the right choice going away from Murray in Game 5.
Even the overtime winner, which came on a Jason Garrison shot from the left faceoff circle that bounced in off the backside of Tyler Johnson standing in front of the net, came with some question marks.
The puck was headed wide of the net, so it was a lucky bounce – and maybe butt goals can’t be helped, but looking at the angles, you can argue that Fleury’s positioning was also off. He was outside his crease and overlapping his post on the short-side despite lacking a redirect option there. So while lucky bounces are just that – luck – positioning can eliminate some of that chance, and Fleury’s seemed to be a little off for most of the game.
Long-time Fleury fans know the enthusiastic, easygoing goaltender as a naturally aggressive netminder. Challenging shooters, pulling outside the crease to take away as much of the net as possible, it was all a part of the game that made the French Canadian goaltender such an exciting player to watch over his career. Since 2013, however, he has shifted away from that style under new goalie coach Mike Bales.
Pulling in just enough to keep his skates in the blue paint and opting for set-ups instead of challenges with increased frequency, the veteran starter saw his statistics improve. Goaltenders who advocate tempered depth enjoyed the change in his game, and the Penguins reaped the benefits.
“That’s one thing we worked on throughout the summer maybe, not challenging as much,” Fleury told InGoal Magazine for a breakdown of his style evolution in 2013-14. “It’s not easy when you see guys in the slot with time to pick corners and stuff, just waiting there. I think sometimes they are going to be able to pick those corners, so you think you have to be able to get out there and be aggressive.”
Fleury has worked hard to curtail those instincts, but in his first start of the 2016 playoffs, they returned.
It certainly wasn’t full-blown, old-school, out-of-control Fleury from the 2012 and 2013 playoffs, but he chased the play more than we’d grown accustomed to during a regular season that was worthy of a Vezina Trophy nomination, including overly aggressive initial positioning, and a misread with his first push into the middle, that gave him no chance to get across on the second Lightning goal:
It was just one example of a tough night that was full of over-playing angles (though it may be worth noting Murray also tends to hedge to the shortside, which is sometimes a team system decision in traffic situations), committing outside the posts, and juicy rebounds – including one on the game-tying goal that stranded him outside his post on the ensuing wraparound.
Overall, Fleury looked like he was simply off his game, something he pretty much admitted after.
The question now is whether Sullivan – and perhaps more importantly, Bales – believes it was simply rust from missing almost two months recovering from a concussion, or, like a golfer going through a swing change and reverting to old form under tournament pressure, is there a chance some of the old Fleury could return again when faced with the possibility of elimination?
Of course, they have to ask similar questions of Murray: Was the decline in his movements and tracking in this series a result of fatigue, and if so, was a couple days without the pressure of playing and more time with Bales enough for him to reset for Game 6?
How they answer those questions will likely lead to a decision on the Penguins Game 6 starter.
Fleury or Murray? The answer isn’t easy.