Matt Murray, Brian Elliott and the perils of flip-flopping goalies in the playoffs

Scott Audette & Nick Lust/Getty Images

Playoff goaltending has become an inviting scab in the 2016 playoffs. It’s best left alone, but too many teams can’t resist the urge to scratch and pick at it until it bursts open and creates a mess.

The Dallas Stars and Anaheim Ducks couldn’t figure out what to do with their creases and, at least in the Stars’ case, it played a hand in their eliminations. The Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues let their goalies be for two rounds but couldn’t help but tinker when the going got tough in their conference final matchups. Now they find themselves on the brink of elimination, evidently with little trust in any of their goaltenders. Each team announced Tuesday it was swapping its original playoff starter back in for a do-or-die for Game 6: Matt Murray for Pittsburgh and Brian Elliott for St. Louis. But is it too little, too late?

The Penguins fiddled with something that may or may not have needed fiddlin’, removing rookie Matt Murray for Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 5 of a 2-2 series at home versus the Tampa Bay Lightning. Yes, Fleury is the Pens’ all-time wins leader and started in the regular season for them when healthy. Yes, he has a Stanley Cup ring. But his playoff history since winning the Cup in 2009 has been checkered at best, and he hadn’t played a game since March 31. It was a bold move to toss Fleury into a tied Eastern Conference final series with that much rust. Especially when Murray had been solid throughout the post-season. His play had slipped a bit, as he’d allowed three or more goals in four of his past six starts entering Game 5, but that happens. Goalies have ups and downs over regular seasons and playoffs. Murray had still won nine times in 13 games overall, posting a .923 save percentage, so it was risky to toss a cold Fleury in for Game 5.

And it showed. Fleury looked stiff and/or got caught cheating on several Tampa goals. No disrespect to Flower, a steady and underrated netminder, but starting him this late in the post-season run looked like a mistake in Game 5. The Penguins will attempt to erase it by reinstalling Murray in the crease for Game 6.

Not that everyone feels starting Fleury in Game 5 was the wrong call, however, including people with far more goaltending expertise than me.

“Fleury got hurt, but it wasn’t from poor play,” said TSN analyst and former NHL goalie Jamie McLennan, who believes Fleury should’ve been named Game 6 starter as well. “I know Murray took over, that’s great, and he gets you there, but his play has started to erode a little bit. So you go back to Fleury, but you give him one chance? Sidney Crosby was bad in Game 5. Do you sit him out? Sometimes people overthink things.

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Sharks on the cusp of Stanley Cup final berth with big Game 5 victory

Chris Tierney celebrates with Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)

The San Jose Sharks had never been closer than two wins away from the Stanley Cup final. That was until following Game 5 of the Western Conference final.

With the chance to take a 3-2 series lead and push the St. Louis Blues to the brink of elimination, the Sharks saw their opportunity and took it. And as it has been for much of the post-season, it was the Sharks’ deadly power play that took over and captain Joe Pavelski who made his presence felt when the Sharks needed someone to step up.

Less than three minutes into the second frame, with St. Louis leading 2-1, Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was whistled for roughing Tommy Wingels. Letting the Sharks power play go to work was the Blues’ first mistake, and San Jose got the game-tying goal from Joel Ward on their first man advantage opportunity of the night. And though the Blues would again pull ahead on a power play of their own, their inability to stay out of the penalty box would cost them in a big way.

Shattenkirk again headed to the box, this time late in the second period for hooking, and the Sharks top power play unit made the opportunity count. After working the puck around the Blues’ zone for what felt like an eternity, the Sharks got the puck below the goal line to Joe Thornton who spotted Pavelski sneaking in from the blueline. ‘Little Joe’ connected with a one-timer: Read more

Blues come out flying in Game 4, trounce Sharks to level Western Conference final

Jared Clinton
Kyle Brodziak celebrates his second goal (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock must have had his team watching Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final ahead of St. Louis’ Game 4 outing against the San Jose Sharks. Just as the Bolts did one night earlier, the Blues came out of the gate flying, broke through early and got out to an early lead. The only difference between the Lightning and the Blues was that St. Louis snuffed out their opponent when they had the chance.

Similar to the Lightning, Game 4 was a revelation of sorts for the Blues. After failing to score for the past seven periods of the series, Troy Brouwer broke through on an early power play for St. Louis. Brouwer’s tally marked the first Blues goal since Jori Lehtera scored midway through Game 1, and it was the start of a long night for the Sharks defensively.

Brouwer’s goal was followed less than four minutes later by a marker from Lehtera, and St. Louis skated to the dressing room with their first two-goal lead of the series. In the second, the Blues would pull away for good as Kyle Brodziak had what could possibly be considered the best period in maybe the best game of his career. First, Brodziak netted a shorthanded goal six minutes into the frame, and almost exactly four minutes later, he buried his second of the post-season.

Brodziak’s pair, which marked his first two-goal playoff game of his 10-year career, were enough to bury the Sharks and end San Jose netminder Martin Jones’ night earlier than most would have expected. The Blues made the victory more emphatic with two goals in the third frame to seal a 6-3 victory, which evened the Western Conference final at two games apiece. Read more

Goaltending not as important in the playoffs as it used to be

Mike Brophy
Martin Jones (Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

The further the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs progress, the more apparent it becomes that teams do not necessarily need great goaltending to win.

Not that any team would turn down Carey Price if they had the chance to get him. It goes without saying, the better your goaltending, the greater your chances are of success. Unlike in the past when a great or red-hot goaltender could be the difference in a playoff series, they are receiving more help than ever from the guys who play in front of them.

In today’s game, which has become a high-paced game of chess on ice, good goaltending will suffice.

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Are the Lightning and Blues toast already? Here’s why they should worry

Andrei Vasilevskiy.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Unstoppable force meets immovable object. Wasn’t that supposed to be the theme for both conference final matchups in these playoffs?

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins looked dead even on paper in the East. The Bolts lost just twice in their first two rounds, they boasted the best goalie left in the playoffs in Ben Bishop, Jonathan Drouin was breaking out as a playmaker, and Nikita Kucherov’s nine goals in 10 games eased the sting of losing Steven Stamkos to a blood clot. The Penguins, meanwhile, overwhelmed the first-place Washington Capitals with their speed, topping them in Round 2, and Sidney Crosby and Co. suddenly looked like serious Stanley Cup contenders. Two blindingly quick offensive squads, both of which had received great goaltending, going head to head. Seven games seemed destined.

On the West side of the bracket: the exorcist teams, the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues, both of which cast out their choker demons in Round 1 by collectively knocking off the only teams to win the Stanley Cup since 2011, the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks. The Sharks and Blues had seven-game wars in their divisional final matchups, both advanced, and both oozed monkey-off-the-back swagger entering the final four. Again, this series looked like a seven-gamer on paper.

And while each series only sits at 2-1, nowhere near over, they sure don’t feel close, do they?

The ice has been chiselled into a ramp-like surface in the Lightning/Penguins series, with the latter skating downhill the entire time. Pittsburgh has outshot Tampa Bay 35-20, 41-20 and 48-28 in the three games, good for a 124-68 margin. The Pens have had the shots advantage in eight of 10 periods, including 3-0 in Game 2’s overtime, with one period tied in shots and one period in which the Bolts had the edge. If you’re an analytics advocate, look away. Pittsburgh’s Corsi margins have been 70-41, 69-44 and 78-50. The series really should be 3-0, but Andrei Vasilevskiy stole Game 1 after replacing injured Bishop.

The Blues, meanwhile, won Game 1 at home but have since been shut out in back to back games, which has never happened over their 40 playoff campaigns. They seemingly have no answer for the star power of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns.

So what gives? It might seem silly to write off the Bolts and Blues so quickly, but the sentiment is out there. In the past 24 hours I’ve been asked, “Will the Lightning/Penguins series be over in a hurry?” and “Will the Blues fire ‘Hitch if they bomb out 4-1″? So let’s investigate how – and if – the trailing teams might climb back into their series.

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Ken Hitchcock is right – playoffs are for guys who wear big-boy pants

Vladimir Tarasenko.

St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has been around the game for a long time. He’s smart and experienced and there is almost nothing he hasn’t seen at the NHL level. That’s why when he spoke about the Blues’ struggles to score in the Western Conference final, it was, as usual, worth taking note.

After the Blues’ 3-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks that stretched their goalless streak in this series to 130 minutes and 45 seconds, Hitchcock was asked by reporters specifically about Vladimir Tarasenko, which is fair. He’s the centerpiece of the Blues offense and the player most likely to open the offensive floodgates.

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Sharks chase Elliott, Jones posts second-straight shutout in emphatic Game 3 victory

Brent Burns celebrates with Tomas Hertl and Joe Thornton (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Being that Thursday night was only Game 3 between the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks, it was hardly a must-win for either team. Yet, somehow, it felt that way for the Blues.

Through two games and a series split in St. Louis, it felt as though the Sharks had dominated play. And the reason it felt that way is because, frankly, it had been that way. When the score has been close in the Western Conference final — when games have been tied or the Sharks needed a goal — it has appeared as though San Jose has been able to control the run of play at will.

So, even though Game 3 wasn’t necessarily a must-win for St. Louis, it seemed essential that the Blues come out of the gate and play like a team that was in dire need of the series lead Thursday night. And the Blues did. They really, truly did. Problem is the Blues’ controlling of the play lasted only mere minutes into the first frame, and after that, it was the Sharks’ game to lose. And though it took San Jose nearly 16 minutes to open the scoring — which came on a pinpoint-accurate shot by Tomas Hertl, no less — Game 3 never really felt all that close as the Sharks skated to a 3-0 victory. Read more

Kessel doing with Penguins what was impossible in Toronto and Boston

Phil Kessel. (Getty Images)

Should Phil Kessel continue his personal assault on the playoffs and be named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as tournament MVP, fans in Toronto and Boston should feel nothing but happiness for him. Wasting their time and emotional energy lamenting what might have been would be an exercise in futility.

And that’s largely because it never would have been. You see what Kessel is doing in the playoffs with the Pittsburgh Penguins? Never would have happened in either Toronto or Boston. Fans in Boston can be thankful for what they got in return for Kessel – Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton for a while – then Jimmy Hayes and three prospects they got when they dealt the players they got for Kessel. Fans in Toronto can watch as Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington try to win a Calder Trophy for their minor league team and hope the first- and third-round picks turn into something nice.

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