The Associated Press
Coach Mike Sullivan offered little clarity to the team’s goaltending situation before the Penguins left Monday afternoon for Tampa, Fla., telling reporters that a decision between Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray will have to wait until today.
As in, just a few hours before what could be the Penguins’ final game of the season.
The question facing Sullivan and his staff is whether to stick with Fleury, who made his first start of the playoffs in Game 5, stopping 21 of the Lightning’s 25 shots in the Penguins’ 4-3 overtime loss, or go back to Murray, who started the previous 13 games.
Tampa Bay’s win Sunday gave the Lightning a 3-2 series lead, and they can end the Penguins’ season and advance to the Stanley Cup final with a win in Game 6 tonight.
“This is an imperfect situation,” Sullivan said of his goaltending question. “I’ve said this all along, it’s hard for all of us. We wish the circumstances were different, but they’re not.”
Sullivan praised Fleury’s play early in Game 5. Even though he only had to make four saves in the first period, some of them were hardly routine. As the game wore on, though, Fleury started facing more constant pressure from the Lightning and, according to Sullivan, “It might have gotten away from him a little bit.”
Fleury played the final period of the Penguins’ 4-3 loss in Game 4 Friday, but Sunday marked the first time he played a full 60 minutes (plus 53 seconds of overtime) since he getting a concussion March 31 against Nashville.
“To Marc’s defense, it’s a tough situation when you haven’t played in a long time and you get thrown into a high-stakes environment like that,” Sullivan said.
“But I thought early on in the game, I thought he looked really strong. He was tracking the puck well.”
Sullivan also credited Fleury’s track record over the long run, saying “we are [not here] today if it wasn’t for his body of work this season.”
Before Game 5, Penguins winger Chris Kunitz called Fleury “probably our best player for most of the season,” and center Evgeni Malkin gave Fleury positive marks for his Game 5 performance Monday.
“I think it was a tough game for everyone [Sunday], but I think Marc-Andre played very well,” Malkin said.
Malkin won’t be the one making the call for Game 6, though. That decision will be made by Sullivan, who called the goaltending situation “a tough circumstance.”
His choice has been made tougher by Murray, a rookie who turns 22 Wednesday and has generally performed well since stepping in for Fleury at the end of the regular season. In his 13 playoff starts, Murray has posted a 2.33 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage.
“As I said, it’s an imperfect situation,” Sullivan said. “All things considered, we’re trying to make the best decisions that we can, that we think give the team the best chance to win, and that’s what we do, and that’s what we go with. We’ll continue to do that.”
For the Penguins players, though, it doesn’t seem to matter who ends up in net tonight. When winger Eric Fehr was praising the team’s depth Monday, he spoke about how the Penguins routinely play all four lines, six defensemen and, he added with a laugh, two goalies.
“I think we’ve done a great job of getting everybody involved, and I think that makes our team a real tough team to play against,” Fehr said.
Sullivan took it a step further and said that showcasing the depth, including in net, that has gotten the Penguins to this point could be the deciding factor as to whether or not there’s a Game 7 Thursday night at Consol Energy Center.
“For me, it’s a great opportunity for our team to put a stamp on these playoffs,” he said. “Come out and play the type of game that we’ve played for a long time, a spirited game, playing the game the right way where we’re hard to play against and get everybody involved. If we do that, I think we’ll come out on the right side of it.”