Hockey players never want to see a beloved veteran teammate lose their gig due to injury. That’s not how they’d want it to go down for themselves, and that’s not the way they want it to go down for anyone else in the locker room.
So the Pittsburgh Penguins, we imagine, aren’t all that comfortable with Marc-Andre Fleury becoming hockey’s Wally Pipp quite yet. His concussion symptoms forced him out of the crease before the playoffs; rookie Matt Murray eventually took over and here’s Pittsburgh, one win away from the conference finals.
Fleury is, by all accounts, healthy enough to play now. The Penguins thoroughly lost Game 5 at the Washington Capitals, and Murray looked human for the first time in his run.
Time for a change?
Not yet, said head coach Mike Sullivan.
Murray will get the start in Game 6 on Tuesday night. He’s 6-2-1 with a .948 EV save percentage, which is first among postseason goalies with more than three appearances.
“I thought Matt played extremely well, as he has all series,” Sullivan said, when asked about the team’s situation in net after Game 5, via the Washington Post. “He made the saves that he was supposed to make for us. He made some timely saves for us to give us a chance to climb back in that game [Saturday]. The reality is we’re fortunate that we have two guys right now in Matt and Marc that we feel strongly about.”
It was interesting to see the speculation among the hockey punditry about Murray in Game 6. Most people anticipated he’d get the start. Kevin Allen of USA Today lobbied hard for Fleury to reclaim the crease:
Murray doesn't deserve to sit. It's that Fleury deserves to play. This is still a veteran’s league and veterans understand what needs to be done to close out a series. Leading 3-2 in the best-of-seven series, the Penguins need to put away the Capitals on Tuesday and not risk returning to Washington for Game 7.
The Capitals looked quite dangerous on Saturday. They played with great energy. Alex Ovechkin showed determination. This is a team that feels as if they own the momentum now. If Fleury skates into that net in Game 6, the Penguins will get a lift. He’s always been a popular player in Pittsburgh’s dressing room.
The only question Fleury is whether his game has rust after sitting out for 38 days.
I agree with Allen that getting Fleury back in would be a boost to the Penguins. But you can keep that arrow in the quiver for now.
It’s the kind of conversation-changing move that isn’t required in an elimination game on home ice, with a goalie in Murray that has yet to turn in a poor performance. It’s required if Murray blows up in the first period of Game 6, or if the Penguins turn in another subpar effort in front of him in a Game 6 loss. Then you go to Fleury in Game 7, and wouldn’t that just be a kick in the hockey pants: The goalie who eliminated the Capitals in that classic series in 2009, in Game 7 on their home ice, back at it seven years later.
But the bigger issue is rust. Murray is still locked in. Start Fleury in Game 6 and get a clunker out of him, and now you’re dealing with a cluster-frack of a goalie situation in Game 7.
Starting Murray isn’t just the smart play, it’s the honorable thing to do. As much as hockey players hate to see their veteran teammates usurped do to injury, they also hate to see great efforts go unrewarded.
Without Murray, the Penguins might not be one win away from facing the Tampa Bay Lightning for the Eastern Conference title. Win or lose, it’s ultimately Fleury’s again, we imagine. But not at puck drop on Tuesday night. Murray’s earned the crease in Game 6.
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