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The Pittsburgh Penguins and the St. Louis Blues were both faced with goaltending conundrums in the last 48 hours.
The Blues yanked Brian Elliott – who has a .937 even-strength save percentage and is one of the sole reasons they’re in the Western Conference Final – from their Game 3 loss to the San Jose Sharks, after getting thoroughly outplayed.
The Penguins yanked Matt Murray – who has a .936 even-strength save percentage and is one of the sole reasons they’re in the Eastern Conference Final – from their Game 4 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, after getting thoroughly outplayed. The difference here being that Fleury played the full third period, and the Penguins nearly rallied to tie the damn thing.
Had Elliott earned the chance for redemption in Game 4? Of course. Claiming that goaltending is the reason the Blues are down 2-1, and could be down 3-0, is like fixing a broken taillight while the entire car is on fire. And yet Jake Allen gets the nod for Game 4.
Has Murray earned the chance for redemption in Game 5? Of course. He’s gotten them this far, and while he’s made some rookie mistakes here and then along the way, Game 4 might have been the first time he’s been a liability.
And yet Fleury could get the start in Game 5, although coach Mike Sullivan said that's a decision for Sunday's gameday.
Here’s the deal with Allen and the Blues: It’s the right call.
It absolutely sucks for Elliott, who’s been hung out to dry against the Sharks like a damp pool towel on a Marriott balcony. But these are desperate times for Ken Hitchcock, and this move is purely one to change the vibe, change the conversation and stop the bleeding.
“We've had two guys all year. It might be a story for people, but for inside the locker room and for us as coaches, it is kind of an easy decision in the fact that, you know, it's probably easier for us than it is for other people because we've just trusted both guys so much,” Hitchcock said. “We trust Brian. Even when there were bumps we trusted Brian. I think this is a little bit different. This is a change in momentum.”
In other words, these are desperate times. The gap between Elliott and Allen was never significantly large. Elliott’s play, and his ability to rebound from bad play, is the reason the Blues are even still in this thing.
But there are very few ways to put the defibrillator on the heart of this team right now. It’s almost like when a coach gets fired: Some of the players inevitably feel as though they’re the ones who cost him the job. Maybe that same dismay motivates the Blues at this dire hour.
And here’s the deal with Murray and the Penguins: I’m not sure it’s the right call yet.
The Penguins played their best period with Fleury in net in Game 4. There’s no question about that: 22-11 Corsi-for advantage at 5-on-5 in the third, and the pressure built throughout the period. Is that a product of Fleury being in net or a product of the Penguins needing three goals to tie the game? Or both?
But there’s also no question that the Penguins were coming off arguably their most dominating game of the postseason in their Game 3, and that was with Murray in net.
Here’s one thought on how this should play out: Murray gets the start in Game 5, a reward for his previous efforts this postseason and, frankly, a strategic move.
Let’s say Murray plays well in a losing effort in Game 5. Now your backs are against the wall. Now you’ve got two straight losses hung on you by the Lightning. Now you turn to Fleury, to give the Penguins the requisite jolt and change the conversation from one of pessimism to optimism.
Again, we’re not sure if the Penguins are quite at the point where they need to swap goalies. It’s one loss, after an incredible win. And it wasn’t even a loss that feels all that devastating – more like the Penguins still had significant advantages in possession, and just ran out of runway before taking off.
That said, there’s also a case to be made for the flip to Fleury, and Rob Rossi’s making it:
Of all the big-name Penguins, none has been better the past three seasons. Crosby, Letang and Evgeni Malkin have had ups and downs. Phil Kessel waited five months to starting scoring like he should.
Fleury was the rock. He kept a dead-weight club afloat when former coach Mike Johnston nearly sank it. He bought general manager Jim Rutherford time to make the moves that turned the Penguins faster, younger and better. He left a season for coach Mike Sullivan to save.
This season always has been Fleury's to finish. He just needed a chance.
Ultimately, it’s Penguins coach Mike Sullivan who knows whether or not a change needs to be made, because no one knows Matt Murray’s mental and physical state better, having coached him in the AHL prior to them both arriving in Pittsburgh. He’s going to know if the kid has a few more in him, and he's going to know if the time to mash down the Fleury button now.
I’ve asked a few ex-NHL players about this Penguins goaltending conundrum. To a man, they all said it’s less about exhibiting loyalty to a veteran who lost his gig due to injury than it is playing whichever goalie gives the Penguins the best chance to win, even if it's the rookie who took the gig.
Ken Hitchcock felt the only way the Blues were going to win was with a shock-to-the-system goalie swap that was less about performance than it was changing the momentum.
How will Mike Sullivan diagnose the Penguins’ current status?
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