Pittsburgh Penguins

Mike Sullivan’s gamble pays off as Penguins tie series

(Photo by Jason Kopinski/Icon Sportswire)

It didn’t take long for Matt Murray to make Mike Sullivan look like a smart man. Sullivan, the Pittsburgh Penguins bench boss, made the risky choice of benching Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Ottawa Senators after the veteran netminder allowed four goals on nine shots in a 5-1 loss in Game 3.

Fleury didn’t enter this postseason as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 goaltender, but he was thrust into the role when Murray was injured ahead of Game 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. Until Wednesday night, “Flower” had been rock solid for the Penguins, pitching two shutouts in the four games prior to Game 3 against Ottawa.

One shaky outing was all Sullivan cared to see, though, and he didn’t hesitate to flip back to Murray, who had earned the starting role during the regular season. It was widely considered a dicey call, starting the player who was supposed to be Pittsburgh’s starter just a few weeks ago.

That’s because Fleury is both well-liked in the locker room and had been playing outstanding hockey before his meltdown in Game 3. There’s virtually no room for error in the NHL playoffs, however, and Sullivan went back to the netminder who won the Penguins a Stanley Cup last year.

Just a few moments into the contest, Murray showed that he was dialed in enough to get the job done once again.

Ottawa controlled the pace of play early, buoyed on by a rowdy hometown crowd at a packed Canadian Tire Centre. Murray didn’t need to stand on his head during the Penguins’ 3-2 victory, but he did need to weather the initial storm — something Fleury had failed to do Wednesday night.

One bad period can make or break a series, and the Penguins entered Game 4 facing the possibility of a 3-1 deficit. That’s not an impossible mountain to climb, but a risk Sullivan preferred to avoid.

It’s a gutsy decision and one that the bench boss deserves credit for making now that the series is tied 2-2. Hindsight is 20/20, and Sullivan would be dealing with an endless string of questions — and a lot of soul searching — ahead of Game 5 had Murray not stepped up. That wasn’t how things unfolded Friday night and for the first time in the series, the Penguins actually gave their netminder some quality goal support.

The goalie switch will be the focal point of the win in the media, but perhaps the biggest takeaway should be the Penguins finally getting going in the offensive zone. They could have been rattled by the 5-1 thumping they took in Game 3, but this is a tried and true squad that has done and seen it all. (Just because it’s trite doesn’t make it any less true).

That showed in Game 4. Sidney Crosby found the back of the net, Olli Maatta opened the scoring and the Penguins even got a little luck when a Brian Dumoulin shot pinballed into the goal off Dion Phaneuf’s skate.

It’s the sort of game that serves as a reminder of why the Penguins are the defending champions. They brought in a cold goalie in Murray, which turned out to be a good choice. They also managed to (finally) get the offense rolling, which should carry over to Sunday’s Game 5.

Now the Penguins head back to Pittsburgh after making the ECF a best-of-three series. After surviving a seven-game slugfest against the Washington Capitals in the second round, and all the playoff hockey the team’s core has been through, that’s not a bad scenario for them.

Ottawa surprised the Penguins and stole home ice away after winning Game 1. By winning Friday night, Pittsburgh took back home-ice advantage and didn’t allow the series to get out of hand after one bad game. They could use more output from Evgeni Malkin, but overall, Sullivan’s squad looked strong Friday.

The Senators made things interesting by scoring late in the third period — a double-deflection goal that wasn’t Murray’s fault — but overall, Sullivan’s choices panned out and the Penguins’ pursuit of a second consecutive title is still very much alive.

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