PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury will start his first game since March 31, taking back the net from rookie Matt Murray for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final on Sunday night.
Fleury made seven saves in the third period of Game 4 after Murray was pulled, having given up four goals to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first two periods. The Penguins staged a furious rally with Fleury between the pipes before falling short, 4-3.
“Lots of things went into the decision,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan on Sunday. “I’d rather not elaborate on the details of it. But we had lengthy discussions. It’s an important decision for our hockey team. We’re trying to make the best decisions that we can that we think give our team the best chances to win, and that’s the route we’ve chosen to take.”
For Murray, this likely ends a storybook playoff run for the 21-year-old rookie netminder.
He won three straight games in eliminating the New York Rangers, after coming back from his own injury to replace Jeff Zatkoff. He outplayed likely Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby in eliminating the Washington Capitals in six games. He won Games 2 and 3 for the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final, before giving up four goals on 30 shots and getting pulled. He has given up three or more goals in four of his last seven starts, and hasn’t given up fewer than two goals since April 30.
“Matt’s great. You know, he’s a very composed kid. Played extremely well for this team, as has Marc,” said Sullivan. “He gets it. He’s a mature kid. If and when he’s called upon to go back in the net, he’ll go back in the net.”
So it’s back to being Fleury’s Penguins. He has a career .906 save percentage in 99 playoff appearances, but that’s deceiving: His disastrous post-Cup run from 2009-13 is what we remember; less so the strong work he’s done in the last two postseasons, admittedly with a couple of hiccups.
Does he give the Penguins the best chance to win? One can argue that the bloom was coming off Murray, and that Fleury’s garbage time play in Game 4 is enough to get him back in the flow. He had an outstanding regular season for Pittsburgh -- arguably their regular season MVP until his concussion in March.
But make no mistake: This is a decision made not only to give the Penguins a jolt entering a critical Game 5, but because the moment Fleury played in this playoffs, the crease was going to be his. Even if, as we argued yesterday, Murray might have earned one more start.
As for the players, Patric Hornqvist said: “I think we have two great goaltenders. We’re really happy that way."
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