Gorman: Penguins' Sullivan shows his conviction by starting Murray
OTTAWA — Facing their first series deficit of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan challenged his players to find another level of conviction, commitment and urgency to their game.
First, Sully set the example.
Showing conviction and commitment, he started Matt Murray in goal for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final, replacing one Cup-champion goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury with another. It sent a message of urgency to the Penguins and Ottawa Senators.
Sullivan called it a "difficult decision," made with a great deal of consideration after watching Murray practice and determining he had fresh legs.
In his first start since April 6, Murray rewarded Sullivan by stopping 24 of 26 shots in the Penguins' 3-2 Game 4 victory over the Senators on Friday night at Canadian Tire Centre to even the best-of-seven series.
"It's always a big boost when your coach has the confidence in you to play a game like this, especially after so long," Murray said. "I really appreciate the confidence he put in me, and I just tried to put my best game on the ice and, honestly, pay him back for his decision and try to do my best to give the team a chance to win. And the team played unbelievably."
You can call it a panic move, as I did, and wouldn't be wrong. Fleury had been the Penguins' best player throughout this postseason before giving up four goals in 13 minutes in Game 3. But I believe this was a decision made not in haste but rather a year ago.
Sullivan switched goalies to no avail against Tampa Bay last year, and went with his gut in riding the rookie through the remainder of the playoffs. That led to the Cup championship, and Murray would remain Sully's starter this season.
Somehow, Sullivan kept a peaceful and professional accord between Murray and Fleury, who both wanted to be the starter. More importantly, the Penguins kept both goalies, electing not to trade Fleury at the NHL deadline. It proved as monumental a move as any team would make.
Where the Penguins owe Fleury a debt of gratitude for performing at peak level in the playoffs, they owed it to themselves to play the best goalie in Game 4. This wasn't about loyalty. It was about winning, nothing more. And Sullivan clearly believes Murray is that man and took a major risk to prove it.
"We're not making change for the sake of making change," Sullivan said. "We're trying to make lineup decisions on a nightly basis or a game-by-game basis that give us the best chance to win. I think at this time of year, we're not looking beyond the one game right in front of us.
"The first question I always ask our coaching staff when we start to have these discussions on lineup decisions, regardless of the position, which guys do we think on this particular game are going to give us the best chance to win? And that's the criteria."
Where Murray's return proved inspirational, the gamble could have just as easily backfired. The Penguins could have lost to the Senators, returned home on the brink of elimination, and Sullivan could have risked a divided dressing room.
Murray had suffered a lower-body injury in warm-ups before the Columbus series opener and admitted to being rusty in his return. Sullivan's conviction and commitment to Murray put the Penguins on notice that no one was safe. If Fleury could be replaced after a poor performance — he recorded shutouts in two of his previous three games — then anyone in the dressing room was at risk of being demoted.
So it shouldn't have come as a surprise that Sullivan started Chris Kunitz on the top line, switched Scott Wilson from the third line to second, dropped Sheary from first line to third and inserted Josh Archibald onto the fourth line.
That was no small shakeup, putting a winger with the willingness to chase pucks into corners on every line. The Penguins had scored three goals in as many games this series, so anything was possible.
"We changed line combinations, changed 'D' pairings; it's up to the coach," captain Sidney Crosby said. "It's up to us individually to go out there and play our game. He makes those decisions, but we know, based on last game, that we didn't help our goalie much and we didn't want to do the same thing."
Murray rewarded Sullivan's faith by stopping the first three shots he saw, making a glove save and then turning away a wraparound and the ensuing rebound. His biggest save came moments later, on a Derick Brassard shot in which Murray did a full split and stopped it with his right leg.
"Right after that, our team rolled and went into the offensive side and really played with the puck," Kunitz said, "and that gave us that momentum."
And Sully showed conviction in his commitment to making a call that proved to be the right one.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.