After his decision to start Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals backfired, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan is going back to rookie goalie Matt Murray for Game 6. The 21-year-old netminder will be responsible for keeping the Penguins' season and Stanley Cup hopes alive as they face elimination for the first time this postseason, trailing the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 in the series.
Even though Fleury did not have a particularly good performance in a 4-3 overtime loss in Game 5, going back to Murray was far from the simple answer for Sullivan for Game 6. The rookie has never played in an elimination game and is coming off of temporarily losing the starting job he had held since Game 3 of the Penguins' first-round series against the New York Rangers and had mostly excelled in.
Not only that, but Murray's last game saw him pulled after two periods after he gave up four goals. The questions about the young netminder's confidence and if he's been taken out of his rhythm are all valid at this point. That's on top of the enormous weight that is being placed on the 21-year-old's shoulders.
There's no guarantee that the Penguins would have won Game 5 if Murray was in there instead of Fleury, but because of the result, it will remain one of the most scrutinized coaching decisions of the postseason. Should the Penguins lose the series, there will be an entire offseason's worth of second-guessing ahead.
Fleury's long layoff, having not started any games since March 29 before stepping in to start Game 5 is a big reason that he's not the best option in goal any longer. That became clear over the course of the potentially devastating home loss in overtime Sunday night.
It appeared as if Sullivan tried fixing something that wasn't broken. Now he needs his young goalie to pick him up.
Murray has done very little to cause concern over the 26 total games he has played over the regular season and playoffs in his first taste of NHL action. The Pens also haven't lost three straight games since mid-December, which was the stretch that ultimately cost Mike Johnston his job and put Sullivan at the helm of this team. They still have plenty of reasons to be confident even as they face elimination.
As for Murray, he has gone 9-4 over his 13 postseason starts. He owns a .923 save percentage and 2.33 goals-against average. If there's one thing that has been noticeable over his 13 postseason appearances, it's that he has never once looked rattled. Even in games where Murray may have been a little shakier, the lanky netminder gives off an impression of stoicism and calmness that can be rare qualities for a rookie goaltender.
Leaving a player with Fleury's experience level - 100 games worth of postseason hockey - on the bench for one with 13 isn't the easy call, but it looks like the right one. Murray probably shouldn't have ever lost the starting job to begin with, but what's done is done. Now it's up to the young goalie and the rest of the Penguins to have the right response to keep their season alive.