Scoring, not goaltending, the bigger issue for Pens

by
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

For a non-controversy, the Pittsburgh Penguins certainly stretched this one out.

After Marc-Andre Fleury was pulled from Game 3 on Wednesday, victimized on four of nine shots, and Matt Murray providing excellent relief, head coach Mike Sullivan said he'd sleep on his Game 4 starter decision. He did, but he didn't fill us in Thursday, instead saying an announcement would be made Friday. We're on a need-to-know basis, apparently, and we didn't need to know.

Well, the decision's finally in: Murray is back in the crease. Last year's Stanley Cup-winning Pens starting goalie will make his first start of the postseason Friday night in Ottawa. He was hurt in warmups ahead of Game 1 of the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but showed no rust Wednesday, stopping 19-of-20 shots.

Here's the thing, though: For all the waiting and wondering - Fleury or Murray? Murray or Fleury? - goaltending isn't the reason why Pittsburgh's down 2-1 to the Ottawa Senators in the the Eastern Conference Final. Even after Wednesday's putrid effort, for which Fleury can hardly be blamed, "The Flower" still has a .924 save percentage in the playoffs - second only to Pekka Rinne among the four starting goalies still competing for the Cup. (For what it's worth, Fleury's stopped 61-of-67 shots against the Senators, for a .910 save percentage. Not superb, but it could certainly be worse.)

The issue: Pittsburgh has three goals in three games. That ain't going to cut it. Period.

Where's Sid?

The Senators have frustrated the Penguins through three games, neutralizing a prolific offense that features four of the top six scorers in the playoffs. Even in the game Pittsburgh won (No. 2), the Penguins were at each other's throats, with Phil Kessel having a tantrum on the bench directed toward Evgeni Malkin, and Sullivan forced to have a chat with the Russian.

The pair eventually hooked up on the Game 2 winner, but, through two games, Phil and Geno have only a goal and an assist. Like everyone else, they've been neutralized.

(Photo courtesy: Action Images)

But those two points are actually one better than Sidney Crosby, whose garbage-time goal in Game 3 - that made a 5-0 game 5-1 - is all he has to show for the series. Crosby's averaging only two shots per game, and is a minus-4. You have to give the Sens and their 1-3-1 system credit. It's working.

Player Game 1 Corsi Game 2 Corsi Game 3 Corsi
Crosby 52.94% 70% 48.57%

Related: On the Fly - Sens-style playoff hockey works, and that's all that matters

No wrong choice

While some will criticize Sullivan for going with Murray, he's blessed to have the option to play and be confident in both of his goalies. Full credit to the Penguins' front office - holding on to Fleury was the right decision, and a tremendous one.

Murray was excellent during the regular season, solidifying himself as both the goalie of the future and the present in Pittsburgh, while Fleury's play in the postseason after being dogged by trade and expansion draft rumors all season became one of the best stories of the playoffs.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

But, again, what ails the Pens isn't goaltending. Murray and Fleury can't score, like the rest of the Penguins. The only problem: Scoring isn't their job.

Deja vu

Sullivan's been here before - last year, actually, as NHL.com's Tom Gulitti pointed out Friday - but the circumstances are certainly different:

So, we may not have seen the last of Fleury. But unless Pittsburgh can figure out how to beat Ottawa's trap, we may be witnessing the end of this season's Penguins.

Chris Kunitz was asked about secondary scoring during media availability early Friday afternoon, and the veteran forward, with one assist in the series, couldn't help but laugh at the question.

"Any kind of scoring would be good," he said.

Precisely.