OTTAWA, Ontario – Mike Sullivan isn’t any hurry to announce who will start in goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins in Friday’s critical Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa.
The defending Stanley Cup champions have relied heavily on Marc-Andre Fleury during their run to the NHL’s final four, but he faltered in Game 3, allowing four goals in just over 13 minutes before being pulled for Matt Murray in a 5-1 loss that gave the Senators a 2-1 lead in the series.
Sullivan doesn’t plan on naming a starter until after his team’s skate on Friday morning.
“I’ve said all along, we have two great goalies,” Sullivan said Thursday. “These guys have both helped us win games. They’re terrific goalies, and we’re fortunate that we have these guys as part of our team.”
Murray helped the Penguins to a championship last spring after Fleury was diagnosed with a concussion. He became the team’s de facto No. 1 goalie throughout the course of the season but tweaked a lower-body injury during warmups before Game 1 of Pittsburgh’s first-round series against Columbus. Fleury stepped in and has played spectacularly at times during the playoffs as the Penguins knocked off the Blue Jackets and rival Washington, posting a shutout in a Game 7 victory over the Capitals.
Fleury kept it going through the first two games against the Senators, including a 23-save shutout in Game 2 that evened the series and gave him 62 career playoff wins, the most among active goaltenders.
The momentum came to a sudden and emphatic halt in the first period Wednesday night. The Senators beat Fleury four times on just nine shots, with all four goals coming from in close. Murray entered for the first time since April 4 and finished with 19 saves while shaking off the rust from his six-week layoff.
“I have no expectations,” Murray said. “Either way, I have to be ready. That’s how I kind of, like, look at it. I’ll be ready to go either way whatever coach’s decision is, but I’m not really hoping one way or the other. It’s out of my control, so I don’t really think too much about it.”
Fleury, the winningest goaltender in franchise history, is 4-1 after a loss during the playoffs and was the primary reason the Penguins were able to oust the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals for the second straight season and the ninth time in 10 postseason meetings. He called a couple of the bounces the Senators received “flukey” and is eager for a chance to go back to work.
“It’s not going to go 16 games in a row perfectly,” he said. “So I put that one behind already, and I’ll be ready to go.”
The cloudy goaltending situation has overshadowed another troubling trend that has nothing to do with who is in net. The NHL’s highest-scoring team has found the going significantly tougher against the Senators and surging goaltender Craig Anderson. The Penguins have scored just one goal in each of their last five games versus Ottawa dating to the regular season. Compare that to the first meeting between the teams this year when Pittsburgh won 8-5 shootout in November.
The Senators have gained confidence using coach Guy Boucher’s neutral zone clogging system and have prevented the Penguins from sustaining consistent pressure in front of Anderson.
“It’s not easy to score, but I hope, like, we forget all three games and turn page, and tomorrow we like start to play our game,” Pittsburgh forward Evgeni Malkin said. “Like shoot the net, like play more offensive zone. If we want to win the game, we need to score like for sure a couple goals or maybe more.”
Malkin leads the NHL in playoff scoring (20 points), with Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby tied for fourth with 15 points each. Rookie Jake Guentzel’s nine playoff goals are tied for the league lead but he hasn’t broken through against Ottawa. Crosby’s power-play goal on Wednesday night avoided a shutout, though it did little to change the tone of Pittsburgh’s worst loss of the postseason.
Crosby, who led the league with 44 goals during the regular season, stressed it’s important not to let 15 ugly minutes overshadow the bigger picture.
“We’re guilty of a bad start, but I think, as far as the goal scoring, I think, just keep going here, and we’ll get the results we want,” Crosby said.