Matt Murray and Patric Hornqvist (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
The Pittsburgh Penguins are heading into Game 6 without a clearcut starter. Matt Murray was good in Game 5, but the loss paired with a healthy Marc-Andre Fleury could give coach Mike Sullivan pause when deciding who to start Tuesday.
The Penguins had a decision to make heading into an incredibly important sixth game against the Capitals Tuesday night. After dropping Game 5, would they stick with rookie standout Matt Murray in goal or turn the reins over to their longtime netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, who is healthy and ready to return after battling back from a concussion?
Murray has been excellent throughout the post-season, but Fleury is, well, Fleury, which means the question wasn't entirely without merit. Fleury is coming off arguably the best season of his career and has the ability to win a game singlehandedly. And watching from the bench for Game 3, 4 and 5, he had to be wondering if he would get his chance in Game 6. So, too, was nearly everyone else.
But before the debate could go any further, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan made it clear. Murray, not Fleury, would be the starter for Game 6, and that's exactly the call he should have made.
Murray’s stumble in Saturday’s 3-1 loss was the first such slip since he took over in Game 3 of the first round against the New York Rangers. And statistically, Game 5 was the worst Murray has played in his (admittedly short) NHL career. The Capitals put 19 shots on Murray through three periods. Three got by him. Though he finished with a .842 save percentage, it's hard to say any of the goals, save maybe Justin Williams’ five-hole goal, were Murray’s fault.
Alex Ovechkin opened the scoring for Washington in Game 5 with a power play blast that snuck over Murray’s left shoulder as he moved from right to left. It was a perfectly placed shot, one that few goaltenders would have stopped. T.J. Oshie’s second-period power play tally came on a rebound, but one that very well could have been cleared following Murray’s post-to-post stop immediately preceding the goal. Even Williams’ marker, really, wasn’t all Murray’s fault. The turnover that led to the goal was ugly and Williams had as open a look as he could have asked for.
But even though Murray showed cracks, the chances he posts another bad performance are slim. Consider that his .842 SP in Game 5 is the seventh-worst single-game save percentage Murray has posted in the past two seasons. He's been better in 93 of his 100 total professional games between the AHL and NHL.
Murray’s ugliest outing came in the AHL on Nov. 11, 2015, when he allowed five goals on 14 shots before being pulled from the contest. He shook that off, though, and rebounded the next time out by stopping 28 of 30 shots. Barring last season’s elimination game in the AHL post-season, Murray has bounced back from every single statistically poor performance he’s had as a professional. He could have rebounded in that elimination game, too, had he not been pulled after 15 minutes.
In the NHL, Murray has statistically never had back-to-back poor outings. He’s only had two games in the NHL with a sub-.900 SP — March 29 against Buffalo (.867) and Game 1 against Washington (.886). Murray posted a shutout the next time out following the loss to the Sabres. He stopped 23 of 24 shots in Game 2 against the Capitals.
Choosing to stick with Murray was about more than his ability to bounce back, though. At this point in the series, there are more than a few reasons why it would be incredibly difficult to call upon Fleury. Namely, if Sullivan and Co. decide to switch up their netminder and Fleury played poorly or takes the loss in Game 6, what comes next? Does Sullivan then stick with the veteran netminder in Game 7 or does he go back to the hot hand? And what does that do to Murray's confidence or comfortability in goal?
By starting Fleury, Sullivan would have had to risk having Murray potentially take over for Game 7 knowing that anything that gets by him could give his coach reason to pull the plug and go back to Fleury. Added pressure in a Game 7 would be the worst thing for Murray, and he's taken that pressure off by sticking with the goaltender who has gotten the Penguins this far.
What the Penguins needed most right now was decisiveness from Sullivan, because if Sullivan wavered and this series went to seven games, we would be right back asking this question ahead of Thursday’s game. The last thing Murray, Fleury and the Penguins would need heading into a series-deciding game are more questions about who should get the start in goal. Those have been erased now. Murray starts in Game 6, and if this goes to seven games, he should start Game 7, too. This is his series to win or lose, and now is Murray's chance to prove Sullivan right in sticking with the rookie.