Friday, May 06, 2016

No matter how well Matt Murray plays, Penguins still have goalie conundrum

By Mark Madden
May 6, 2016
I think I’m always right. It’s my biggest charm, some say.
But when it comes to the Penguins’ goaltending situation, I can’t be right, because I honestly don’t know what they should do.
Marc-Andre Fleury has been cleared to play after missing all of April with a concussion. Statistically, he had the best regular season of his career: 2.29 goals-against average, .921 save percentage, 35 wins, five shutouts.
Fleury kept the Penguins within reach of the playoffs. That situation was shaky before they won 14 of their last 16.
Murray has manned the blue paint through the last seven playoff games. He has six wins, a 1.81 goals-against and a .944 save percentage. His 47-save performance in the Penguins’ Game 3 win over Washington Monday was miraculous.
Fleury, 31, is a 12-season vet with a Stanley Cup ring, another Finals appearance and, yes, some playoff disappointments.
But Fleury was the Penguins’ best performer in each of the last two postseasons with a 2.32 goals-against and a .919 save percentage in 18 games.
Murray, 21, is in his second pro campaign. He was the American Hockey League’s top goaltender and top rookie last season.
Murray has massive potential, and we’re seeing some of it realized right now.
“Right now” is the primary consideration.
I believe Fleury is superior. Even if the Penguins ride the hot goalie and Murray wins the Stanley Cup, Fleury is my starter at the beginning of next season. That’s one thing I’m absolutely certain about.
Fleury is a proven commodity in his prime. The performance of young goalies can be mercurial.
Witness ex-Capital Jim Carey, who went from Vezina Trophy winner at age 21 in 1996 to out of hockey by 1999. From NHL first-team all-star to net defective, and it happened within three years. Other examples abound.
Ideally, the Penguins would like to keep Fleury and Murray for 2-3 years, the probable 2017 expansion draft permitting. You need two quality goalies.
Long-term, I’ve got it figured. Short-term, I keep vacillating.
Originally, I thought Fleury should play as soon as health permitted. Then the doctors cleared him, and I thought, “Give Murray one more game.” Murray made all those stops Monday, so he had to start Wednesday. I thought, “Fleury plays Game 5 no matter what.” But Murray won again.
If coach Mike Sullivan wants to reinstate Fleury as the Penguins’ No. 1 goaltender without Murray faltering, he should do it at the start of the Eastern Conference final (provided the Penguins eliminate Washington). Otherwise, Fleury only regains the job if Murray is injured or flounders.
Sullivan has lots of faith in Murray. He coached him earlier this season with the Penguins’ Wilkes-Barre/Scranton affiliate. Sullivan might see Murray as his best choice. That notion can’t be discounted.
Stylistically, I prefer Fleury. Murray sets up so deep in the crease, he’s practically inside the net. You’d think a 6-foot-4 goalie would come out and challenge. Cut down the angles. Murray has given up four soft goals in the Capitals series.
But Murray makes big saves, and keeps winning.
Some say that it’s impossible for Sullivan to make a bad decision. That’s wrong. It’s possible.
In 1996, starter Tom Barrasso played the first three games of the Penguins’ opening-round series with Washington, losing twice. Barrasso got hurt. Backup Ken Wregget won the next three games. In the second round, the Penguins beat the New York Rangers in five games. Wregget played all of them. He was brilliant.
But Barrasso got healthy. Wregget lost the first game of the Eastern Conference final at home to Florida, 5-1. Coach Eddie Johnston started Barrasso in the series’ remaining games. Barrasso didn’t stink, but he leaked in Tom Fitzgerald’s shot from just inside the blue line in Game 7 and the Penguins lost 3-1.
Johnston lifted the hot goalie. Barrasso didn’t lose the series. But perhaps Wregget could have won it.
For Sullivan, the safe decision is to keep using Murray. The hot goalie.
This situation won’t become toxic. The Penguins are lucky in that regard. Fleury and Murray are good teammates.
So is Jeff Zatkoff. Don’t forget Zatkoff’s role in the Penguins’ run. He got a split in the first two games of the first-round series against the Rangers after not starting in almost two months. That contribution can’t be minimized.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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