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.