Even though Marc-Andre Fleury has a .924 save percentage through the playoffs to this point and is one of, if not the leading, Conn Smythe candidate for the Penguins, Matt Murray‘s return to the bench as his backup opened the door for the question everyone is asking today.
Is it time for Pittsburgh to switch goalies?
After allowing four goals on just nine shots in less than 13 minutes, Fleury got the hook in Game 3 as the Penguins fell behind 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Final. The Hockey Night in Canada panel discussed the upcoming decision for coach Mike Sullivan, and it encapsulated the varying opinions you’ll hear:
Nick Kypreos: “I think they need to change the energy a little bit here this series and Matt Murray may be the guy that they’ll lean on in Game 4.”
Kelly Hrudey: "I’m leaning towards Fleury, he’s got you here so far but I would consider Murray later."
Elliotte Friedman: "I look at the defence tonight and look who’s playing, I don’t know how you can hang this one on the goalie."
For his part, Sullivan said he'd "sleep on" the decision.
What a luxury to have two No. 1 goalies you can turn to, something the Penguins will unlikely be able to survive with through an expansion draft and an off-season where more than a few teams will be searching for an upgrade in net. Pittsburgh, as this series shows, needs to acquire more depth for the blue line and could use the cap relief of moving one of these goalies (most likely Fleury's $5.75 million AAV).
Who should the Pens turn to in Game 4? First, let's compare the post-season runs from both players this season and last:
|PLAYER/YEAR||GAA||SP||SA/G||4+ goal games against||GP|
|Matt Murray, 2016||2.08||0.923||27.3||2||21|
|Marc-Andre Fleury, 2017||2.56||0.924||32.6||5||15|
At first glance, you'll see the effect Pittsburgh's depleted blue line has had on Fleury's workload. The Penguins blue line was acknowledged as their weakness last season when they won the Cup, but at least then they had Kris Letang. This year's team is not only without Letang, but played a stretch without Trevor Daley, missed top blue line scorer Justin Schultz in Game 3 vs. Ottawa, and doesn't have the depth to make up for these losses.
Not to mention the injuries they've sustained to the forward unit, too.
So Fleury's GAA is higher than Murray's was last season and he's had more of those "blow up" games allowing four or more goals, but their save percentages are roughly even.
And about those four-plus goal games: we can glean a potential factor in Sullivan's decision by looking at how these guys have followed up those performances in the recent past.
Last post-season, Murray allowed four or more goals in a game just twice and followed up both with wins: 2-1 over Washington and 5-2 over Tampa Bay. Fleury, meanwhile, hasn't had the same bounce back impact this playoff season. He allowed four goals-against versus Columbus and Washington, and followed up both with five goals-against and a loss. Is that a sign of what could come versus Ottawa in Game 4?
When these goalies allowed at least four goals-against in a game this regular season, Fleury followed it up with another four goals-against or more four of nine times, while Murray followed with another four-goal game on just two of nine occasions, in 11 more games played overall.
With the Pens now trailing 2-1, they certainly can't afford to allow the Senators another offensive explosion. Gamesmanship will be a factor here as well: should the Penguins just make a switch to "shake things up?"
Stepping back a bit and looking at the decision with a larger scope, we have to remember Murray is almost certainly the starting goalie of the future for the Penguins. In 49 games this season, Murray won 32 times with a .923 save percentage, while Fleury won 18 games with a .909 save percentage. The 22-year-old Murray hasn't had any major hiccups in his short career so far and, overall, may be the safer option in a crucial Game 4. He's the guy the team will be turning to for the long-term.
Then again, Fleury is the one who got Pittsburgh to this point. Is that enough of a reason to turn back to him, with a goalie like Murray waiting on the bench?
It's entirely fair to hold the opinion that Fleury shouldn't take blame for the Game 3 loss, but get replaced by Murray anyway. The Penguins just need to go with the guy who instills the greatest confidence.
Who is that? Which goalie would you go with?