Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray. Image by: Getty Images
There's no doubt the Penguins need Matt Murray to be better in Game 5, but they could also help themselves by improving their transition game and getting their stars back on track.
PITTSBURGH – Nashville Predators’ coach Peter Laviolette said it was never in doubt, even after the first two games of the Stanley Cup final in which his goaltender was almost singlehandedly responsible for his team trailing the series 2-0. Pekka Rinne was always going to be his starting goaltender for Game 3. Which kind of makes you wonder why he didn’t just come out and say it in the first place.
Now the pad is on the proverbial other leg. Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray wasn't as leaky in Games 3 and 4 as Rinne was in Games 1 and 2, but he has failed to make crucial saves and the Predators are having a field day exploiting his glove hand. Murray said the other day that he hadn’t noticed that particular trend. It’s the playoffs. You’d expect him to say that.
But there is considerable speculation here as to whether or not the Penguins would be better served by turning back to Marc-Andre Fleury, who admirably stepped in to replace Murray when the latter was hurt in the warm-up prior to the first game of the playoffs. Fleury got the Penguins through the first two rounds, then was replaced by Murray at the first sign of faltering against the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference final.
The feeling here is that Penguins coach Mike Sullivan is just as adamant as Laviolette was and that Murray will be the starter in Game 5. Although, like Laviolette, he wouldn’t make an ironclad commitment, though he did say, “The one comment I will make is that we didn’t lose (Game 4) because of our goaltending.” The Predators’ fan base, which chanted, “It’s all your fault,” after every goal the Penguins allowed, even the empty-net goal in Game 4, beg to differ.
But Sullivan has a point. Murray didn’t make the crucial save when he needed to, whereas Rinne was there time and again with the kinds of spectacular saves that both inspired his team and sent the crowd into a frenzy. But the Penguins lost, both Games 3 and 4, because they were generally speaking, a dreadful team. Anything can happen, and has happened this spring, in the playoffs, but the Penguins have the distinct look of a team that has run out of gas. They appear to be going on fumes, but when those fumes are in the form of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, sometimes that can be enough. The Penguins can still win this series, but there is one trend they are going to have to reverse. They are going to have to stop being the second-best team in every game they play.
As our stats guru Dom Luszczyszyn has pointed out, teams that get outshot as badly as the Penguins are give themselves almost no chance of winning the Stanley Cup. The Penguins have been outshot by a 123-91 margin by the Predators, for an average of eight shots per game. When it comes to shot attempts, the Predators once again hold a large margin at 227-177. And as Luszczyszyn pointed out, only 11 teams since 1960 have been outshot by an average of as many or more shots than the Penguins are, and they all lost. In fact, according to Luszczyszyn, only 27 of 32 teams that have been outshot by an average of four or more shots has gone on to win the Stanley Cup. Tops on that list are the 1982-83 New York Islanders, who won the Stanley Cup final in a sweep despite being outshot by an average of 6.3 shots per game.
Most lopsided Stanley Cup Finals:— dom 💛 nashville 🤠 (@domluszczyszyn) June 7, 2017
27/32 teams who outshoot their opponent by more than four shots per game go on to win the Cup. pic.twitter.com/29hOZeHBQT
One area where the Penguins have to be better is in turning the puck around, which is far easier said than done. The Predators have exploited the Penguins defense corps by jumping on them constantly and they have no time or space to get the puck up to their forwards. What they need, then, is for those forwards – and we’re talking about you, Phil Kessel – to start lugging the puck up the ice with some speed themselves.
“Certainly I think the one area where I think our team can improve on here is just our transition game,” Sullivan said. “I think that’s a dangerous element of our game that has been prevalent throughout of course of this season. I do know that we can get better in that aspect of our game here over the next week. That’s something that we’ve talked about, how we can just get better at our transition speed. I think that gives our team a competitive advantage.”
Just as it would have with Laviolette replacing Rinne, Sullivan taking Murray out of the crease would probably reek of desperation at this point. The Predators still have to win at least one game at PPG Paints Arena and they failed to do that despite outplaying the Penguins substantially in Games 1 and 2. The Penguins are still holding the title belt, albeit with a lot less grip than they did a little over a week ago, and there is no sense of widespread panic.
“I don’t know that we feel that we’re against the ropes,” Sullivan said. “I think we have to win a game. That hasn’t changed. Desperate is a funny word for me because it gets thrown around our game a lot. It always has a connotation of hopelessness. I don’t believe that’s the word that we want to use to describe our team. I think we’ve got to play with urgency. I think we’ve got to play determined. I think we have to play with conviction. I think when our team plays that way, we’re at our very best.”
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