Rob Rossi: Penguins finding life a lot harder with only one No. 1 goalie
Marc-Andre Fleury isn't coming through the door. Matt Murray isn't waiting in the wings. And life is a lot different these days for the Penguins.
Life is going get hard, too.
At least life won't be any harder for the Penguins than it is every other hockey club trying to claim the Stanley Cup.
But nine games into this season, we should acknowledge a big reason the Penguins raised the Cup at the end of the past two seasons.
Sidney Crosby wasn't that reason. Neither was that reason Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, coach Mike Sullivan, general manager Jim Rutherford or any one person.
It was one position. It was the most important position. It was also the greatest advantage for any club in the NHL salary-cap era.
The Penguins had two No. 1 goalies.
They didn't have two quality goalies. They didn't have two starting goalies. In Fleury and Murray, the Penguins had two No. 1 goalies the past two seasons, which meant they had a go-to goalie if their preferred goalie couldn't go when it counted: the playoffs.
By the midpoint of their back-to-back Cup runs, the Penguins' other No. 1 goalie was their playoff MVP. For their Cup Final series, the two best goalies played for the Penguins.
Remember all the chatter about the Penguins' unparalleled depth down the middle? Turned out that depth was unbelievable.
For the majority of 49 playoff games, Sullivan could count on deploying the best first-, second- and third-centers and turning the net over to one of hockey's best big-game goalies. When trailing in the Eastern Conference final each of the last two postseasons, Sullivan turned to a backup goalie with a Game 7 victory on the resume.
Life was good.
Life might stay good because Murray would be any smart coach's starting goalie if one game had to be won. He is 8-1 with a .939 save percentage and 1.58 goals-against average after a loss in the playoffs.
There can be no reasonable questions about Murray when it comes to playoff hockey.
There is the question about whether Murray can make it to the playoffs. He nearly asked it himself before this season.
“I don't know what the number is, but I think I've only played 70-some games in the regular season and, like, 30 in the playoffs,” Murray said. “I'm still feeling this league out, still learning.”
What could a two-time Stanley Cup champion possibly have to learn?
“Everything,” Murray said. “I mean, how to go through a full season at this level is something I'll need to learn this year.”
While figuring it out, Murray must also fill the veteran goalie skates vacated by Fleury upon his trade to Vegas and by Antti Niemi upon his failure to make a noteworthy save in a brief-but-brutal run as the Penguins' backup.
Waiving Niemi was the only call for Rutherford to make. That he had to make it before the end of October signaled the desperation of the situation.
Indeed, even the two-time defending champions can be desperate in the first month of an NHL season. That is especially true when those champions have been tasked a brutal schedule featuring 10 stretches of three games in four nights.
“That many?” Murray said. “Wow, that's crazy.”
However, it would have been more insane to trust any one game in any one of those sequences to Niemi. Even if his three starts – once at Chicago and twice against Tampa Bay – were, in the words of Murray, “tough spots,” Niemi was signed over the summer to handle those spots.
Had his performances been only spotty, Niemi might have bought himself more time to prove his worth. Instead, Niemi was the goaltending equivalent of the mumps: fatiguing and frightening.
“Part of the role of being the backup is getting the end of back-to-backs,” Sullivan said Monday.
The Penguins go back-to-back again this weekend with games at Minnesota and Winnipeg. They will do it three more times before Dec. 1, a point by which it favors a team to be in a playoff spot.
Not that anybody should worry about the Penguins failing to qualify for the Cup tournament. The Eastern Conference is improved, but the Penguins are still, well, the Penguins.
Except that they're really not, at least as we knew them the past couple of years. The Penguins had a couple of No. 1 goalies then.
They're down to one now, which leaves the Penguins like most everyone else coming for them.
Such is life.