After losing two of the first three games of the Eastern Conference Final, the Pittsburgh Penguins are back in the series thanks to a controversial decision by head coach Mike Sullivan.
Through the first two rounds of the NHL playoffs, 32-year-old goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury seemingly solidified his starting role with outstanding play and a .924 save percentage. He kept the Penguins alive in several contests against the top-seeded Washington Capitals, and a shutout in game seven propelled the squad to a series win.
He played well in the first two games of the conference finals also, as the Ottawa Senators scored only two combined goals. But everything fell apart during a first period barrage in game three.
Fleury gave up four goals, including three over a span of a little more than two minutes. Sullivan replaced him with Matt Murray — who led the team to last year’s Stanley Cup Championship — immediately after the fourth goal.
Murray played reasonably well for the remainder of the game, only letting one more shot past. The team still lost in a 5-1 blowout, but Murray’s play created some uncertainty surrounding the position.
In between games three and four, Sullivan mulled over the situation and decided to give Murray the nod in the hours leading up to the crucial contest. While many people questioned this decision to abandon Fleury — largely based on one bad period — it was the right choice.
Over the course of his career, Fleury has shown nothing but inconsistency in the postseason.
His career save percentage in the playoffs is about average for NHL goalies at .908, and he’s had more postseasons with a save percentage below .900 than above it. From 2010 to 2013 he was the worst playoff goalie in hockey, according to save percentage.
Over that span, Fleury failed to have a postseason with a save percentage above .900. He’s bounced back since then, but this inconsistency is in stark contrast from his regular season streak of being above .900 since 2005.
Fleury was superb again in the 2015-16 campaign, allowing just 2.29 goals per game before sustaining a concussion and missing the start of the playoffs. Then the backup goalie, Murray was expected to fill in to start the playoffs, but he too was injured in the team’s final regular season game.
Murray was the first of the pair to return, taking to the ice in game three of the first round and taking complete command of the position as Fleury was forced to watch from the bench after he recovered. But, two rounds later, a similar situation to this year transpired against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
In game four of the series, Murray allowed four goals and Fleury replaced him, saving all seven of the shots he faced in his 18:26 of playing time. The performance was good enough for Sullivan to switch starters for game five, but the mid-series switch didn’t pay off like this year.
Fleury made 21 saves but allowed four goals in the team’s 4-3 overtime loss. The Lightning took a 3-2 lead in the series, and Murray was back in goal two days later. He allowed three combined goals in the two remaining contests, and the Penguins won the series in seven games, going on to win the Stanley Cup with Murray in the net.
The situation in last year’s conference finals bears a striking resemblance to the current situation. In both cases, the backup goalie entered the starting position due to an injury and experienced success in the first two rounds. Each time, they had a letdown performance in the conference finals, leading to a switch.
But despite the decision backfiring in 2016, Sullivan made the exact same choice this year. Why did he do this?
The answer is simple — the Penguins are more confident in Murray than Fleury.
Last year, it may have been different, since Fleury was the longtime starter while Murray was in his first season. But Murray kept up the impressive play this year, starting more games than Fleury and putting up better numbers in the process, allowing 2.41 goals per game compared to Fleury’s average of 3.02.
Murray shined last postseason and proved he is the superior goalie over a significant stretch this regular season. Yet, people were still afraid to abandon Fleury’s hot hand and put Murray back in the starting lineup.
But throughout his career, Fleury has proved he’s nothing but inconsistent in the playoffs, and even though he played well through two rounds, allowing four goals in the first period against the Senators may have been the start of a series of poor play.
And even if it wasn’t, Murray has been at least as outstanding as Fleury since his return. In his first playoff start on Friday, Murray recorded 26 saves while only giving up two goals in the Penguins 3-2 win in Ottawa. Sunday, he snatched 25 saves in a dominating 7-0 shutout to put the Penguins up 3-2 in the series. And even though the team lost on Tuesday, Murray was more than satisfactory, saving 28 of 30 shots, with one of the Senators’ goals coming on a five-on-three power play.
By making a change and starting Murray, the Penguins put their better, more reliable goalie on the ice. They’ve been rewarded, and the recent surge might be enough to propel the team to their second straight Stanley Cup Final next week against the Nashville Predators.