The answer was as swift as it was firm. Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan didn’t waste time thinking about his answer, nor did he leave much room for doubt. He will not stoke a goalie controversy or even admit to a competition between incumbent Matt Murray and challenger Tristan Jarry.
Not even a little bit.
Last December, Sullivan challenged Murray by publicly opening the goalie position with “an open competition.” Those were his words. This December, Sullivan has refused the same, despite a preponderance of starts for Jarry.
“No,” Sullivan deadpanned when PHN pressed for a similar admission this season.
Jarry has started 13 of the last 17 games and has an astounding 11 wins. This season, he has allowed two goals or less in 14 of 18 starts and leads the league in goals against average (1.88) and save percentage (.938).
“We have two good goalies and we’re going to utilize both of them to help this team win,” Sullivan concluded without elaboration.
It appears Sullivan is protecting Murray and avoiding a public downgrade for which fans seem to be hungry.
Before a declarative statement, a disclaimer: Jarry has played only 47 NHL games. His biggest flaw was again displayed Monday night when he allowed a pair of goals with scrambly lateral movements. On the first Ottawa goal, he was all over the crease and beyond the posts. It’s been an occasional problem, especially when pucks go wide and carom off the end wall.
Remember the hubbub over Murray too early in his career? (Remember all of the flack most fans gave PHN over “pumping the brakes,” and pointing out Murray faced the same unknowns in 2017 which Jarry now faces?)
Jarry has played only 19 games since 2017-18, which also means NHL shooters have not yet dissected and picked at his flaws. Just as Murray was once unbeatable, Jarry is impenetrable now. Many assumed Murray would remain unbeatable, but here we are.
Ok, enough of the disclaimer.
It’s time for Sullivan to name Jarry the starter. Or, it time to admit an open competition as Sullivan did 12 months ago when Murray stumbled and Casey DeSmith filled in nicely.
It’s the mid-point of the season. The games are about to get serious and we don’t yet know how Jarry handles pressure. Perhaps a little pressure now will tell us more about Jarry.
“(Jarry) played unbelievable. He gives us a chance to win every game,” Malkin said Monday night.
Also, there are whispers on the inside that part of Murray’s recent problems is a resistance to acknowledge his struggles. Murray has always been a rock, on the ice and off. There is some question if he is receiving the message that he must make some technical changes or sharpen some aspects of his game.
Despite a popular narrative about Murray’s 44-save win on Saturday, he was shaky. At least one of the goals was soft, and certainly a game-changer.
And Murray has been at his best when challenged; challenged by Marc-Andre Fleury for the net, challenged by center-stage playoff competition and last season challenged by a lack of playing time. If Murray isn’t getting the message, a public admission can only hurt Murray is he isn’t ready for a challenge.
It’s time for Sullivan to declare Jarry the starter for those reasons.
If Jarry handles the pressure and uses the declaration for additional confidence, then the Penguins benefit. If Jarry stumbles, the Penguins have plenty of time to let Jarry work through it. If Jarry significantly falters, the Penguins have time to get Murray back on track. And the latest challenge may be enough to spur Murray like a thoroughbred coming down the stretch, much like last season when he posted a dominant .930 save percentage after Dec. 27.
The Penguins have earned an eight-point cushion in the playoff race on the back of Evgeni Malkin, who is driving the offense, on the backs of depth players who are succeeding despite the odds (never tell me the odds), and on the back of Tristan Jarry who earned 11 wins in his last 13 games.
If not as a reward to Jarry, then a challenge to Murray, and a push towards a resolution. Who is the Penguins No. 1 goalie? Based on Sullivan’s public refusal, Murray remains a beleaguered incumbent.
The Washington Capitals were forced into a similar situation in 2017-18 when head coach Barry Trotz turned to Philip Grubauer later in the season and at the start of the playoffs. You’ll recall Braden Holtby eventually won back the net and Washington kissed Lord Stanley in Vegas.
For better and worse, Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray have earned their roles. It’s OK to admit it, and let’s see what happens next.