Viktor Arvidsson #38 of the Nashville Predators scores a goal against Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period in Game Four of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 5, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
At this moment, many hours from the start of Game 5 at PPG Paints Arena, Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne is the story of this Stanley Cup Final. Just don’t tell that to hordes of Penguins fans and some local media, unless you like your sports arguments loud, disagreeable and, at times, bordering on irrational.
Those people will tell you that Rinne’s metamorphosis from terrible goalie in Pittsburgh to brilliant Conn Smythe favorite in Nashville is of secondary importance. They’ll tell you that the real problem isn’t that Nashville’s netminder suddenly became impenetrable again, but that Marc-Andre Fleury wasn’t in the cage to face him in Game 4.
And get ready, because if you continue to engage those people, they will, with the kind of zeal reserved for cult members, tell you that all will be lost for the Penguins if Fleury doesn’t start Game 5. On Twitter, these are the same folks that lamented the end of the Penguins’ run when Murray was inserted back into the starting lineup in the Ottawa series. These are the people that derisively suggest that Mike Sullivan’s loyalty to Murray hurts the Penguins.
Murray won the Penguins a Stanley Cup last year, in case you forgot. Murray helped the Penguins win the Ottawa series, and has them two wins from the Stanley Cup. Murray has a .949 save percentage and is unbeaten at home this postseason.
Murray is also the Penguins’ No. 1 goalie.
None of those numbers, nor Murray’s status as starter, matter to some of Fleury’s supporters, whose passion for their favorite goalie rivals the intensity of that which is directed at teen heartthrobs by their adoring fans. Fleury is their guy, he’s also a really nice guy and he should never have lost his job in the first place, so the logic goes.
Last night, the phrase “Fleury would have stopped that one,” seemed like it was being tweeted so often that I was surprised it wasn’t trending across the country. Never mind the fact that Fleury’s postseason history is littered with soft goals, bad goals, inexplicable goals and so on. Never mind that even in his mostly excellent playoff run this year, he gave up a few of those head-scratchers.
No, in the minds of his most ardent supporters, the answers are clear. Fleury would have made all the stops. Fleury would have already won a Cup, would have already guided the Penguins to a sweep.
Those people must think that he would have pitched back-to-back shutouts, I suppose. Or that he would have helped the Penguins break out of their zone more cleanly. Or that he would have finished more A+ prime chances around the net. Or that he would have imbued the Penguins’ beleaguered defense corps with the poise and skill needed to deal with an ever more aggressive and effective Nashville forecheck. Or that he would have somehow cast a pall over Rinne, who, again, is the story of this series, both good and bad.
Here’s a no-frills winning formula for the Penguins in Game 5. Murray starts in goal, as he should, because none of the goals he gave up in Game 4 were awful, or bad, or unforgivable. The Penguins convert on the power play and make Rinne’s life difficult. Sullivan’s defense corps finds another gear, difficult though that may be. And the Penguins, a team flush with offensively gifted forwards, starts finishing. It really is that simple.
Fleury already rode in on the white horse when he got the Penguins midway through the Eastern Conference finals before giving way to Murray. He’s done his job and then some, and if the Penguins can find a way to survive a talented, intense Predators team, his role in a successful Stanley Cup defense will never be forgotten.
But Murray is the starter. Murray deserves to play Game 5. And if the Penguins don’t find a way to win this series, chances are it will be because of the goaltender.
The one on the other team.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of “The Starkey & Mueller Show” from 2-6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 The Fan.