Murray or Fleury? Penguins have an NHL playoff goalie controversy

Ottawa leads the Eastern Conference final 2-1 after a 5-1 thrashing of Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

Should Matt Murray start Game 4?

Should Matt Murray start Game 4?

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The Penguins traveled to Ottawa for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final at the Canadian Tire Centre, and it only took until the midway point of the first period for the game to officially turn into a tire fire.

Ottawa scored 48 seconds into the game on a stuffed puck from behind the goal line that Marc-Andre Fleury was unable to stop. Ten minutes later, things really blew up for Pittsburgh. Fleury was beaten at the 10:34 mark, the 12:28 mark and then, because why not take all the drama out of the game, the 12:52 mark.

Fleury was yanked after facing nine shots and letting in four. Matt Murray, the Pens regular season starter who was injured in warmups before the first game of the postseason, spelled Fleury, who had his shortest and worst appearance this playoff season.

And so, while the 4-0 score sapped all the drama out of Game 3, Fleury’s performance did create some serious drama for the rest of the series. Head coach Mike Sullivan has a season-defining decision to make before Game 4. The Stanley Cup — hell, the legacy of his coaching tenure in Pittsburgh plus that of each and every one of his players — hangs on this decision.

So … who should it be: Murray or Fleury?

“I’m sure it will be a watercooler conversation for a lot of fans around the National Hockey League for sure,” NBC’s Pierre McGuire said during the third period Wednesday. (And the media, Pierre. And the media.)

On the one hand, Fleury has been the Penguins’ most valuable player this postseason, until Game 3. Don’t take my word for it, our NHL expert Dave Lozo wrote an entire column about it just yesterday. Through 14 games this playoff season, Fleury allowed just 33 goals, a 2.32 GAA with a .931 save percentage, far better than his career percentage of .912 and his .906 career save percentage in the playoffs.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Pittsburgh Penguins at Ottawa Senators

Fleury was let down by his defense, but he also let in some bad goals Wednesday.

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Fleury has two shutouts this postseason, his first in Game 7 at Washington, where he saved 29 shots and willed the overmatched Penguins defense into the conference final. His second shutout came in Game 2, as must-win a game as the Penguins had this postseason, outside of Game 7. Fleury saved 23 shots Monday night and looked every bit the championship-caliber netminder the Pens need to win back-to-back Stanley Cups.

And yet, when Fleury is bad, he’s been very bad. Or, perhaps more apt, when Fleury’s defense is bad in front of him, he’s not always able to save the day.

It’s hard to blame Fleury for all four goals he gave up Wednesday. And yet, he did allow three goals that started from behind the net. It’s hard to not blame that on the goaltender at least a little.

Through the playoffs, Fleury has four games in which he’s allowed one or zero goals, five games in which he’s allowed two scores and now six games in which he’s given up three or more, with five of those coming in games he allowed four or more.

Murray, on the other hand, has a career GAA of 2.32, which is the best in franchise history for any goalie who has played 20 or more games. He played in 21 playoff games last year and had seven games in which he allowed one or zero goals. He let up two goals six times — all wins, by the way — and allowed three goals six times, letting in four goals just twice.

The second-year starter played just 13 games last season before leading the Pens to the Cup. This season he featured in 49 games, with a .923 save percentage and 2.41 GAA. 

So, let’s be fair. Murray was markedly better than Fleury during the regular season, but it’s not as if he was playing at a Vezina trophy-winning caliber. Murray was 15th in the NHL in goals against average and was tied for seventh in the league in save percentage. Still, it was Murray who supplanted Fleury as the team’s starter this season, and it was Murray who played well enough at times this season that many openly wondered if the Pens would trade Fleury before the deadline.

Certainly the franchise is thankful for having both, and a fair case can be made that they wouldn’t be where they are without both of them. Fleury’s first period implosion could be chalked up to horrific defending by a depleted unit. And yet, in front of that same unit, Murray allowed just one goal on 20 shots, albeit long after the game had been decided.

That’s all a long way to say this cannot be an easy decision for Sullivan, but Game 3 has opened the door for an easier transition back to a healthy Murray.

It wasn’t an option to bench Fleury in either of the previous two series, so both he and Sullivan had no choice but to bounce back after a bad game. But with Murray healthy, the starting job should go back to him, especially with Fleury showing he’s human again.

In hockey, it’s always smart to ride the hot goalie, and after two shutout wins in the last three games, sandwiched around an overtime 2-1 loss, it’s hard to think of Fleury as anything but hot. And yet, the first period Wednesday said a lot. MVP to this point in the playoffs or not, Game 3 might have put Fleury on the bench for good.