After losing two straight games in Nashville, the Penguins have a litany of changes they could make to their lineup in preparation for Game 5 back in Pittsburgh. The starting goaltender, however, should not be one of them.
If you think it’s way too early for that statement, unfortunately, you’re not alone.
But much like the sun continues to rise, the goaltender debate predictably rolls on.
Matt Murray gave up a total of eight goals in Games 3 and 4. Five of those eight goals were shots to Murray’s adjudged weakness: his glove side. The others came off shots that, presumably, most goalies would want back. He wasn’t sharp in Nashville and, for the most part, didn’t look like the same goaltender who stopped 94.8-percent of the shots he faced to that point. That much is fair and true.
But Murray had nothing to do with an offense that scored exactly two goals in two games. Nor was he a key component of a power play that went a combined 0-for-6 in Games 3 and 4. And despite the chants of the crowd in Nashville, the empty net goal wasn’t his fault, either, as they (incorrectly) pointed out.
This question of who should start in Game 5 is one that was inevitably bound to be asked, since the Penguins have been afforded the luxury of carrying a number 1) and 1a) goaltender on their depth chart. Both have played admirably at different points of this postseason. Both have the qualified playoff resume. Both have their adamant supporters who, somehow, have yet to find a middle ground on this polarizing topic.
(Also, you can’t downplay the ever-present understanding that if the Penguins give up more goals than they score in any given game that, obviously, it’s the goalie’s fault. Just as it’s Ben Roethlisberger’s fault any time the Steelers lose. It’s a shame Pittsburgh isn’t home to an NBA franchise, really.)
Marc-Andre Fleury was great in these playoffs, no question. The Pens would be playing golf right now if it weren’t for his efforts in the second round against Washington — there is no counter-argument to this argument. He’s a great person, too, sure. He has fun playing the game, and everyone loves that. Somewhere on the list of compliments you can pay him, there’s also the fact that he’s been a pretty damn good goaltender throughout his career in Pittsburgh.
But Matt Murray is the starting goaltender for a reason. He’s Mike Sullivan’s guy for a reason. And if you’re sitting around waiting for Murray to be yanked in favor of Fleury, well, you’re probably going to be waiting awhile.
If you need convincing that knee-jerk reactions at the most crucial position in hockey are a bad idea during the Stanley Cup Final, just take a look over at the other side of the ice, where Peter Laviolette chose to stick with his guy, Pekka Rinne, when Nashville came home down 2-0, and Rinne was fresh off of allowing the same number of goals as Murray (eight) over two road games. A week later, Rinne is back stealing the show for his team, and making Laviolette look like a genius in the process.
Man, oh man, how the turntables turn.
The cold, hard truth here is that both Fleury, and now Murray, have been bailing out a defensive unit that is any and all possible combinations of injured, fatigued, over-matched, in over their heads, depleted, and — at its root — just not very good as a unit. The performance of the defense in the last two games was so bad, your sturdiest brick wall would have trouble stopping pucks. They’re hanging on for dear life any time a puck is dumped in their direction or skater comes at them with speed. Clearing attempts look more like Hail Marys. Simple zone exits are turning into complicated surgical procedures on the ice. The degree to which they miss Kris Letang is both palpable and tortuous.
This obvious deficiency on defense is nothing new — it has been statistically bad for the better part of the entire postseason — but has been overshadowed by an offense that has found a way to score more than enough goals to win, which is all anyone really cares about at the end of each game. But now that the goal-scoring well has dried up, here we are:
Fleury not only endured, but persevered despite this lackluster defense and, to be completely fair, was pulled after the one and only game he didn’t. Push past the lack of goal support, and you can argue Murray is 0 for his last 2 behind it, so — again — there’s an avenue for argument. But making a change when the series is tied 2-2 reeks of desperation, and it’s way too early in the series to go down that road, especially when the Penguins seem to feel they’ve just played their most consistent game of the series.
They’re not wrong. The Pens were outscored 9-2 in Nashville but the two games were much more closely contested than that score would indicate. The opportunities were certainly there, especially in Game 4, which is a cause for (gasp!) optimism.
If we’re talking lineup changes, perhaps a guy like Mark Streit can provide a change of pace to the defense. His prowess on the power play could certainly help that unit, too. Josh Archibald was inserted into the lineup to add some speed to a forecheck that has been failing to disrupt the Nashville defense, so maybe turning to Tom Kuhnhackl would provide a fresh set of legs to that effort. But changing goalies? Come on.
If the Pens drop Game 5 at home, then maybe, maybe you make the change. Going back to Nashville down 3-2 in the series without some sort of shakeup does seem to spell hypothetical doom. Maybe that’s when fans could expect Sullivan to make a calculated move to generate desperation and emotion, not when the team is going back home with series tied.
For now, it should remain Murray’s net. Mike Sullivan is a coach who preaches trusting the process, and now is a good time for him to follow his own lead. The Pens are 2-0 at home in this series, with two of the next three games in Pittsburgh, where Murray is 4-0 and sports a .949 save percentage this postseason.
But if the Penguins get back to their goal-scoring selves, it doesn’t matter who the goalie is, or how bad the defense is at defending — they’re winning the Stanley Cup. Making changes to get that to happen should be the focus heading into Game 5. Not changing the guy between the pipes.