The Ottawa Senators have jumped out to a 2-1 series lead against the Pittsburgh Penguins and have an excellent opportunity to put a stranglehold on the Eastern Conference final with another home victory Friday night.
How likely they are to pull this off probably hinges on the most important decision of this playoff run for Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan: Stick with Marc-Andre Fleury in goal, or go with No.1 netminder Matt Murray the rest of the way.
The temptation to stick with Fleury is surely there for Sullivan, despite the decision to pull MAF after he allowed four goals on just nine shots in Game 3. Fleury stepped up when Murray got injured at the start of the playoffs and provided a steady hand through the first two rounds. There’s been a sense with Fleury for a long time, however, that the bottom could fall out at any moment in the playoffs and we’d get a performance like the one we saw Wednesday. Add in the fact that he had a pretty awful regular season, and the odds seemed good that, despite a nice run here over the past month or so, we’d see the real 2017 Fleury emerge.
If the Penguins have any hope of winning this series now, it’s time for Sullivan to cash out his chips while he’s ahead and go back to Murray for Game 4.
Already I can hear the cries of “unfair! Fleury has been great these playoffs!” That may be true, but when you consider his whole season, this has more to do with regression than some miracle resurgence for a guy having a bad year. Fleury isn’t as terrible as his .909 regular season save percentage would indicate, but nor is he as good as the .924 mark he’s put up in the playoffs. Add it all together and what do you get? A .914 goalie – a little below league average.
The Penguins desperately need a win in Game 4, and in any given game, Matt Murray gives them the best chance to win. This should be an easy decision.
“Well the goalie pick doesn’t matter if the Penguins can’t score!”
Actually, the goalie pick matters more than ever if the Penguins can’t score. Ottawa’s trapping style may be derided by some as “boring,” but the Penguins would do well to copy the Senators’ approach for the foreseeable future. They’re now without their top two offensive defencemen in Kris Letang and Justin Schultz, and they’re playing a team that makes it especially difficult on opponents who don’t have someone well suited to slogging the puck through Ottawa’s neutral zone quicksand. Just ask the Boston Bruins how much fun it was trying to get by with a depleted defence corps (it doesn’t help that Sidney Crosby looks off since his suspected concussion, too).
The Penguins’ best hope is to match Ottawa’s talent in goal – which they can do with Murray – and give themselves the opportunity to win some close games. And if Sullivan does decide to go with Fleury, well, Ottawa had better be ready to take advantage again.
James Gordon is publisher of OttawaReport.com and HockeyMarkets.com. Follow him on Twitter here.
(Photo: File photo of Marc-Andre Fleury. Credit: Michael Miller, Wikimedia Commons)
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