The 2016-2017 Pittsburgh Penguins postseason run has been a bumpy ride. The Columbus Blue Jackets battered the Pens throughout the first round and the Washington Capitals, clearly the better team for most of if not all of the series, couldn’t close out Pittsburgh in game seven. The defacto key to both series? Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury outplayed two Vezina winners in Sergei Bobrovsky and Braden Holtby and handedly so. While Bobrovsky struggled to contain the Pens’ blistering offense, Fleury posted save percentages of 97 and 98 in the first two games, stopping 70 of 72. In one of Fleury’s best postseason performances, he thwarted 49 of 51 Columbus rubber pellets in the series-clinching game five win.
In round two, Holtby watched from afar as his teammates peppered the Penguins’ end for seven games and watched with frustration as Fleury continued to bail his teammates out. Holtby, on the other end and with little to do, failed to execute. In the second period of game four, Holtby gave up two goals on four shots. That is laughable and he, more than anyone, cost his team the series.
On the opposite side, we have a goalie that surely stole a series against a superior opponent, including a game seven shutout on the road. Fleury was as much a fluid gymnast in front of the net, contorting his body in every shape and form, as he was a magician, making pucks disappear before hitting twine. He has been the Penguins best player this postseason and is a virtual guarantee to win the Conn Smythe if they win Lord Stanley’s cup. The Penguins’ offense that was first in goals and third on the powerplay during the regular season has been on and off during this year’s run and it hasn’t mattered. Marc-Andre Fleury has been the best postseason goalie. Pekka Rinne is the only other candidate you could even make an argument for.
A goalie is the most integral part to playoff success. Goalies can steal a game or, a la Fleury, a series.
And never in my life have I seen the best postseason goalie in a calendar year get benched. Until today.
In an unprecedented move, coach Mike Sullivan will be starting Matt Murray in tonight’s game four. There’s no logical reasoning for this.
If anything has hampered the Pens during this series, it’s been the team’s inability to score. The Pens should have won game one, but went 0/5 on the powerplay, an ongoing problem. Injuries knocked Bryan Rust and Justin Schultz out of game two and there’s no timetable for their return. In three games, the once mighty Pittsburgh offense has scored three goals. The defense that has played quite well without headmaster Kris Letang completely flopped in game three, to an embarrassing level. Only one of the goals scored on Fleury on Wednesday could be attributed to him. The utter incompetence of the Pens defensemen that game was the singularity of that trainwreck and everyone who watched that game knows that.
Except Mike Sullivan. Mike Sullivan appears concerned with how to allow less goals rather than score more than one. That is the only rationale I can come up with at this point.
Look, Mike Sullivan is a wizard. I love him and he’s already on his way to being one of the best coaches in franchise history. Of all the issues this team currently has in front of them, goaltending has been the least of them. It has been since day one. It still is. Patrick Roy could have played goal for the Pens on Wednesday. It would not have changed the outcome.
So, to bench Fleury, your best player this postseason run, because of a historically bad period from your defense, makes not even a minute of sense. Matt Murray has always been Sullivan’s favorite and that will most likely never change, but head coaches are not afforded the graces of favoritism. One goalie has played the best postseason of his career. The other hasn’t played a full game since April 6. It doesn’t take a genius to figure this one out.
On the other hand, Sullivan is a genius and even he couldn’t figure out this “conundrum.”