Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save on the Lightning's Vladislav Namestnikov in the third period. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)
TAMPA, Fla. — The Penguins don't have a goaltending controversy. They have a franchise goaltender.
And it should be an easy call for their coach for a pivotal Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.
His team. His series. His time.
Fleury's insertion into the Stanley Cup playoffs — long overdue given the recent regression from rookie Matt Murray (though he was hardly at fault for any of the four goals allowed Friday night) — is the spark the Penguins needed in Game 4 at Amalie Arena.
That spark will fortify them to finish what they started with Murray: a Cup run.
Fleury, however, is also the best goalie for the task at hand: finishing off the Tampa Bay Lightning.
That was true before he stopped seven shots in the third period of the Penguins' 4-3 loss in Game 4. Throughout a best-of-seven series that is tied 2-2, the Lightning had exploited the weaker aspects of Murray's game.
Don't confuse weaker for weaknesses.
Murray will grow into a goalie who isn't prone to stick-side shots. His lateral movement will improve. Already able to aggravate shooters that keep the puck low, he is bound to get better against the rare NHL players who can place the puck high.
He is only 21.
He has started as many playoff games as he has regular-season contests.
And it says a lot about his maturity, professionalism and skill that Murray performed as he did in Game 4 while most of his teammates didn't bother showing up until the third period. Given all that he did for the Penguins early in this postseason, Murray deserved better than to serve as rod for the Lightning strikes that few goalies could have prevented.
The Penguins surrendered 30 shots through a couple of periods. The Lightning averaged 23 in Games 1-3.
Winger Chris Kunitz noted the Penguins' loss of “50-50 battles for pucks.” Defenseman Kris Letang took it upon himself, insisting he needed to “keep (his) composure and skate away from” post-whistle antics. (Even punches; because, well, NHL officiating.)
Captain Sidney Crosby said the atmosphere in the Penguins dressing room during the second intermission was “about what you'd expect.” By then, they trailed 4-0. They had generated only three shots in as many power plays. And they gave up pucks as though the frozen, vulcanized discs carried the Zika virus.
You didn't need to be a hockey expert to expect Fleury for the third period. Former pro wrestler Shawn Michaels could have called that move. And he'll take in his first NHL game Sunday night at Consol Energy Center.
Had you expected a heartbreaking performance from Fleury, you wouldn't have been alone. He hadn't played in a game since March 31. Aside from drills after practices, he was breaking a sweat only by opening and closing the door to the Penguins bench.
So, yeah, it was heartwarming for Fleury's supporters (full disclosure: this columnist is a big one) when he denied a Lightning 2-on-1 rush to make a first save. It was a relief to see him smiling while answering questions after a game.
That's what Fleury is supposed to be doing.
Of all the big-name Penguins, none has been better the past three seasons. Crosby, Letang and Evgeni Malkin have had ups and downs. Phil Kessel waited five months to starting scoring like he should.
Fleury was the rock.
He kept a dead-weight club afloat when former coach Mike Johnston nearly sank it. He bought general manager Jim Rutherford time to make the moves that turned the Penguins faster, younger and better. He left a season for coach Mike Sullivan to save.
This season always has been Fleury's to finish. He just needed a chance.
If you're stuck on his postseasons from 2010-13, you're looking at a goalie who no longer exists. That version of Fleury was shaky and suspect but also often singled out when a lot of other Penguins were as deserving of blame for playoff disappointments.
This version of Fleury entered a good-as-gone Game 4. He saved every shot.
If you believe it was a coincidence the Penguins' best players — Crosby, Malkin and Letang — started looking that way after their goalie was back, you don't know anything about these Penguins.
“He looked like ‘Flower,' ” Crosby said. “He's been great for us all year. He looked comfortable in there, which is great.”
Game 5 is next, and the Penguins' cage is one that needs its “Flower.”