Have you ever made a decision that you were pretty sure wasn’t going to work, but you felt compelled to make it anyway? Maybe you allowed yourself to be talked into it by outside influences, maybe you wrestled with it internally. But you made it and you had to run with it. That’s the choice that Mike Sullivan made with Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5.
The fact that the decision between Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury was such a coin flip says a lot about where both goalies are right now in their progressions. Murray is a rookie that has taken Penguins’ fans imaginations by storm, but he seemed to have hit a plateau point this series. In Game 4, he allowed four goals on 30 shots and didn’t look nearly as sharp as he has at other points of these 2016 playoffs. This caused Sullivan to switch to Fleury, a goalie that has not played a game since March 31st and coming back from a moderate to severe concussion, for Game 5. This is to say nothing of the fact that Fleury has had a…let’s call it…checkered…playoff history since he backstopped the Penguins to a Cup in 2009.
So a 12-year veteran, Stanley Cup-winning goalie, with a banged up noggin is roughly equal to a rookie goalie playing at peak efficiency, but maybe tiring a bit. Or as a math equation:
12 years * Fleury * 0.75 health * 0.80 playoff history = 1 year * Murray * 0.90 energy
No matter which goalie Sullivan selected for Tuesday’s Game 6, he was going to be second-guessed. If he selected Fleury (under the auspices that Fleury scraped the rust off in Game 5), Sullivan would be questioned on how he could bench Murray and his 9-2 record and .930 save percentage in the playoffs, a percentage only surpassed once by Fleury in his career (the 2007-08 Cup run where Fleury would have won the Conn Smythe had the Pens beat the Red Wings that year). By selecting Murray for last night, Sullivan opened himself up to questioning on how he could disregard a goalie with Stanley Cup-winning experience, a guy who had been there before, as if those were not the same people lambasting Fleury for some abominable performances in recent playoff seasons.
There’s this weird thing going on with the Penguins’ fanbase with players, but especially with these two goalies. It’s similar in concept to A/B Testing with websites — people are shown two websites and asked to pick which one they like, or what type of content they like. The winner of this polling is what the company then goes with. With regards to Fleury and Murray, if you prefer Fleury then people assume that you must hate Murray. Or if you say stick with Murray, that means you’re ignorant to all his past contributions and you want to run him out of town.
All it means is that for that one moment in time, you prefer the work product of one goalie over another. That’s it. There doesn’t have to be any other overarching concerns or conspiracy theories.
Coach Sullivan’s gambit of selecting Murray paid off in spades during Game 6. Although he wasn’t tested with the frequency of his Tampa Bay counterpart, Murray still made 28 saves, allowed only two goals (one on a deflection from a back checking Kessel) and shut the door on the Lightning at key moments. There is no internal debate needed by Sullivan for the decisive Game 7 tomorrow in Pittsburgh. It’s Matt Murray in net. Tomorrow and, most likely, from this point going forward into next season.
Just because we may have seen the last of Marc-Andre Fleury as a starter for the Penguins, it doesn’t mean that we don’t have to like him or remember his incredible contributions. It just means that Murray is better right now, this snapshot of a moment in time.