Sullivan stays mum on Penguins' starting goalie for Game 4 of Eastern Conference finals
OTTAWA — On 76 occasions this year, counting the regular season and playoffs, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan had Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray healthy and available to start a game.
In some ways, the decision he will make when he fills out his lineup card for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Ottawa Senators on Friday night will be exactly like those 76 occasions.
All season, Sullivan has announced his starting goalie on the day of the game. He didn't deviate from that tradition after the Penguins practiced Thursday afternoon at University of Ottawa, allowing the talk-show debates on the topic to rage for another 24 hours.
All season, Sullivan said the decision has been a difficult one. After all, both goalies are Stanley Cup champions with the pedigree to be NHL starters.
There is a major difference, of course. This time, the stakes are infinitely higher.
If the goalie Sullivan chooses gives up four goals on the first nine shots he faces like Fleury did in a 5-1 loss in Game 3 on Wednesday night, the Penguins will likely be in a 3-1 hole in the best-of-seven series, for all intents and purposes doomed one round short of a chance to defend their Stanley Cup championship.
“It's never an easy decision. It never has been all year long for us,” Sullivan said. “That's a decision that I never take lightly, that we take very seriously. We try to make the best decisions that we think give our team the best chance to win, and we go from there.”
Signs pointed toward Fleury getting the nod as the Penguins practiced Thursday.
The 32-year-old was in the same net he manned Wednesday morning before starting Game 3. He faced the top power-play unit at the end of practice. Third-stringer Tristan Jarry spent time in Murray's half of the rink while Fleury had his half to himself.
If those indications turn out to be pertinent, it won't be hard to see why.
Fleury is a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate this postseason, carrying the Penguins through their weakest moments during the first two rounds. He got shutouts in two of his last four starts and looked to be on top of his game until Wednesday night's debacle.
Fleury said he sat down with goalie coach Mike Bales to review the 13 minutes he played in Game 3. He didn't absolve himself of blame for the goals he allowed, but he didn't fall into a self-loathing tailspin either.
“Any time there's a goal that goes in, I'm always mad about it. I don't want to get scored on,” Fleury said. “But if it's a fluky goal, I've got to just move past it and be ready for the next one.”
There's a case to be made for Murray too, of course.
Remember those 76 occasions this season where Sullivan had to choose a starting goalie? He picked Murray 47 times. The 22-year-old's body of work over the past eight months is statistically stronger than Fleury's, and he looked sharp in stopping 19 of 20 shots in relief in Game 3.
“You don't want to kind of feel your way into it,” Murray said. “Just jump in there and play like you haven't missed a beat. That's what I try to do, just play with no hesitation and no fear.”
Murray was fearless as he backstopped the Penguins to the franchise's fourth Stanley Cup championship 11 months ago. Fleury's play over the last five weeks has the team in position to compete for a fifth in June.
Neither of those facts will weigh heavily on Sullivan when he fills out his lineup card Friday night, though. He simply wants to circle the number of the goalie who will stop the most pucks on this particular night.
“I think we have loyalty to our whole group. I don't think it's any one particular guy,” Sullivan said. “This is a team. It's a team in the true sense of the word. Are we appreciative of the contributions that all of our guys make, Marc included? Yes, absolutely. We wouldn't be to the point where we're at without these guys, any of them. So that's how we look at it. I think we have loyalty to our whole team.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.