Mike Sullivan of the Pittsburgh Penguins argues with referee Brad Meier #34 against the Ottawa Senators during the third period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 21, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Mike Sullivan’s goalie switch is still being debated.
The Penguins coach replaced Marc-Andre Fleury with Matt Murray for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals vs. Ottawa despite Fleury being a front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP) at that point.
Murray won Games 4 and 5, stopping 49 of 51 shots.
But the goaltender change has been mostly inconsequential. Third-stringer Tristan Jarry would have won Sunday’s 7-0 debacle. While Murray played well in Friday’s 3-2 victory, Fleury could have easily got that result.
Sullivan’s more impactful decision involved rearranging his forward lines to provide a different kind of balance.
Winger Patric Hornqvist is injured. Winger Conor Sheary has struggled mightily, earning a healthy scratch Sunday.
So Sullivan balanced the grit, forechecking and north-south capability among his four lines.
Chris Kunitz does that duty on Sidney Crosby’s line. Scott Wilson serves that purpose with Evgeni Malkin’s trio. Carter Rowney is that guy on Nick Bonino’s line. Matt Cullen’s unit forms, as usual, a solid fourth line.
The even dispersal of that type player keeps each line honest in organic fashion. The puck gets low. Flicks and tricks are kept to a sensible level.
“We’re trying to create some balance,” Sullivan said. “We like to have a north-south guy on every line. That helps us play the game that we want to play. That’s a speed game, a north-south game -- someone that can get into the battles and force puck battles for us.
“The makeup of the lines right now gives us that balance. It gives us people on every line that can play a north-south game and have a physical component. They help us create those 50-50 pucks that we’re looking for.”
The Penguins are beat up, and exhausted. (Though it’s amazing how refreshing a 7-0 win can be.) They have been unable to dazzle Ottawa. It's not that time of year, anyway. Sullivan’s lineup enables the Penguins to play it a bit closer to the vest.
The Penguins, as assembled, rely on consistency, on occasional moments of brilliance by top-end talent, and on Ottawa to be mediocre. (The Senators are mediocre, at best. They made the playoffs by a mere four points and had a goal differential of minus-2 on the regular season. Tick, tock.)
I don’t agree with every decision Sullivan makes. But I trust his decision-making. Sullivan has a pretty high batting average.
I’d usually abhor Kunitz skating with Crosby and criticize it as unnecessarily revisiting glory days. That ship has sailed, foundered and sank.
But Ottawa coach Guy Boucher matches his top defenseman, Erik Karlsson, against Crosby. It’s that much tougher for Karlsson to sort out Crosby when he also has to deal with Kunitz, the most physical Penguin, constantly pounding him into the glass. Kunitz’s punishment tires Karlsson and likely exacerbates his foot injury.
Sullivan covers all bases. That’s one reason he and his team are on the cusp of something special despite a medical room that looks like Omaha Beach.
If the Penguins eliminate the Senators by winning Game 6 at Ottawa, they will win the Stanley Cup. Giving the Penguins five days to rest and heal before the Stanley Cup Final will make them unstoppable.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9)