Last season, a concussion prevented Marc-Andre Fleury from starting the postseason in net for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Third-stringer Jeff Zatkoff stepped in to win Game 1 of the first-round series, and then once healthy himself, Matt Murray came on to win the other 15 games on the way to the Stanley Cup.
New year, same story – at least so far for the Penguins. Murray sustained a lower-body injury in warmups prior to Game 1, and this time, it was Fleury ready to emerge from the bench and play.
Except he didn’t just play. Without a doubt, Fleury was Pittsburgh’s best player in the team’s thrilling first-round series versus the Columbus Blue Jackets. And just as they did last season, the Penguins should be prepared to ride their “backup” goaltender as long as possible.
Yes – even when Murray is healthy, Fleury should be Pittsburgh’s starting netminder. Murray was spectacular last postseason, but he didn’t appear to be the same goaltender late in the regular season. The 22-year-old posted a .918 save percentage after March 1, which is just a tad above league average.
During that stretch, though, Murray was inconsistent. He yielded more than three goals five times in 12 starts after March 4, so that slightly above average save percentage is a bit misleading. In another game, Murray allowed three goals and was pulled at the conclusion of the first period
So in half of Murray’s starts in the final six weeks of the regular season, he turned in a real stinker.
Fleury, on the other hand, looked refreshed after the trade deadline passed on March 1. Perhaps relieved he didn’t get traded, he relaxed and really started playing well.
He didn’t receive as much work as Murray, but his save percentage after March 1 was a strong .927. Now including the playoffs, Fleury owns a .930 save percentage in his last 12 appearances.
Let’s be clear: just because Fleury is the hotter goaltender doesn’t mean he will remain with Pittsburgh past this season. There is still the pending Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft, where the Penguins can only protect one goaltender.
However, the expansion draft should have absolutely no barring on who starts in net. Just as it had no influence on general manager Jim Rutherford’s decision on whether or not to deal Fleury at the deadline. All season, Pittsburgh made its goaltender choices based completely on winning now.
Nothing changes in the playoffs. When the roles were reversed last spring, Murray kept his job as long as he remained hot. When his armor cracked a bit in the Eastern Conference Final, coach Mike Sullivan briefly benched him, but Murray quickly regained his starting role and rode out another hot streak to the Cup.
As of now, Fleury is the hotter goaltender. Say what you may about him allowing nine goals in two games in Columbus, but he still posted a .933 save percentage in the series. In Pittsburgh, Fleury stopped 119 of 123 shots (.967). In all three of those games, the Penguins started slowly, allowing the Blue Jackets to dominate possession in the first period. Columbus outshot Pittsburgh in first periods at PPG Paints Arena, 43-22.
But in all three games, Fleury’s key early saves allowed Pittsburgh to score first. Forcing the Blue Jackets to chase in the series was a big reason why the Penguins closed them out in five games.
In Game 3, Fleury yielded four goals, but three of them came in the first 6:10 in what was another dominating Columbus start. After that, though, Pittsburgh steadied itself behind strong goaltending from Fleury, who turned aside 30 of the final 31 shots he saw in the game. Without that, the Penguins don’t come back to win in overtime.
In the final three games of the series, Columbus really exposed the Pittsburgh defense, which sorely misses Kris Letang. The Penguins will have about a week to make defensive adjustments, but without any hope of getting Letang back, the Pittsburgh blue line is about as good as it’s going to get. In order to repeat, the Penguins need to be opportunistic at the offensive end and stellar goaltending.
That was Pittsburgh’s exact recipe for success in round one. As the cliche goes, “when it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Even if it’s only until June, the Penguins’ net belongs to “the Flower”.