Game 5 between Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh was a highly anticipated match up that begged the return of franchise backstop Marc-Andre Fleury.
That was the focal point for almost everyone heading in. The Penguins had come off a dismal 4-3 loss in game 4 they really had no chance of winning. When the team did rally for 3 goals in the third period after Fleury saw his first action in this post season, that was the only glimmer of hope fans needed.
And so it came to pass that Fleury ended up getting the start in game 5.
Here’s the thing though. Over a 7 game series I think Pittsburgh is the better team. If both teams play at 100% potential I’d have to favour the depth of the Penguins. It’s shown itself at every crucial stage so far this season and has carried on through the playoffs, so I’ve never been worried about them. It’s partly because they’ve never seemed worried about themselves….until after game 4.
Staying the course has been the season motto. When Mike Sullivan took over as head coach it took 5 games to get his first win. They stayed the course. When Malkin was injured down the stretch, they stayed the course. When Fleury was concussed and they had to begin the playoffs with Murray, they stayed the course.
Time and time again, we’ve heard comments about the resiliency of the Penguins. The room believes. The players believe in each other. They’ve bought in.
So in the Eastern Conference Finals where it’s been back and forth, 2-2, heading to home ice with some obvious confidence and momentum from the third period, how is that the time to not stay the course?
As I said, the ONLY reason to make a big change such as a starting goaltender is because you think your team has reached a big change moment. This was not a big change moment. Think of it as dealing with a person who’s choking. The Penguins looked horrible for most of game 4, but relative to the series they were basically in the coughing phase. Still conscious, still upright, just not breathing. There was work to do, but they had time and they had plenty of smaller options. Putting Fleury in could be looked at as a mild sign of panic. With that decision, Sullivan took his coughing team, threw them on the floor, and started administering CPR. It wasn’t Marc-Andre Fleury the person I was worried about. It was the fact that Sullivan was considering a change at all.
As the coach Sullivan knows that room better than anyone else, and only he knows what each goalie is thinking and feeling. I try to never question a coaching decision because I’ve had to make them and I know that not everyone is going to agree. Sometimes there’s no other explanation than just having a feeling.
It’s not like Fleury lost them the game, and he actually nearly won it. This move could just as easily have worked and I never looked at it like an automatic loss. But you have to be two or three moves ahead. The problem is now that they have lost, where do you go from here? What’s the plan B?
From the Tampa side, it’s easy. They know they can beat Murray, and now they know they can beat Fleury. The fear of the unknown has been taken away and they have not one but two chances to finish the job.
From the Penguins side, it 100% comes down to why he told his team he made the change. If he sold it to the players as a maintenance break for Murray (which I said was the only reason this made sense), then there’s no issue. He can come back with Murray, everyone knows it was part of the plan, and it’s business as usual.
But, if it was sold as Fleury being the number one guy and it being his team…If it was sold as a rallying cry to the masses….If it was sold as the ace in the hole they’ve been waiting for the perfect moment to use or any of that other irrelevant crap, then what?
The truth is, it really doesn’t matter. The Penguins as a team didn’t look good at any point for more than one shift in a row. There are obvious flaws in their game that need fixing but if they do fix them, they’ll be fine. But now it has the illusion of mattering, and that could be the mental damage that loses them the series. For me, the risks of changing goalies and losing was far too detrimental to take the chance.
Is the series over? Far from it. Sullivan just needs to treat the coughing, not the choking.