PITTSBURGH — The injury bug, which has been a greedy monster stalking the Pittsburgh Penguins like a hungry deadite from a Sam Raimi trilogy, didn’t wait for the opening face-off to attack the Penguins. Starting goalie Matt Murray suffered a lower-body injury early in warm-ups and backup Marc-Andre Fleury was quickly thrown into the deep end as the starting goalie.
It was Murray’s fourth injury this season, dating back to a broken hand suffered in the World Cup of Hockey.
Fleury seized the moment, Wednesday. With just 20 minutes of preparation, Fleury was on top of the crease, sharp on his angles, and stopped all 16 shots in the first period. Fleury’s glove was a little stiff at the start, as the affable goalie admitted he was a little nervous (see below).
While the stat sheet showed an unbalanced first period, the Penguins were not on the ropes. The Penguins ceded the outer offensive zone to collapse four and five defenders in the box. The Penguins traded shots-against for prime real estate; they took the slot away from the Blue Jackets. Columbus amassed 16 shots, but only a few quality chances.
The strategy was a clear attempt to protect the Penguins patchwork defense. And it did. The Penguins forwards played deep in the defensive zone and disrupted several potential high-danger scoring chances. The side-effect of protecting the Penguins defense was protecting the goalie, as well.
Fleury’s biggest save came midway through the first period when Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski had a clean look from the slot. Fleury nullified the chance.
Overall, Fleury took advantage of the defensive zone protection, though it may have seemed foreign territory to the veteran netminder who was often defensively abandoned this season. Fleury faced more than 35 shots 14 times in 34 starts. He faced only 32 in Game 1.
Fleury: “I was a little nervous in the beginning. At the end it was a great feeling, a fun game to win.”
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 13, 2017
Overall, Fleury tracked the puck well through traffic. His game was quiet and his movements controlled. He also played large. It was the performance the Penguins and Fleury needed.
Based on other professional sports which disclose injuries and estimated healing times, such as ever other sport, a lower body injury like Murray’s will likely take most of a week to heal. A five-day absence puts Murray’s earliest return at next Tuesday, Game 4.
Four injuries in one season is a high number. Questions about Murray’s durability are now legitimate. It’s too early to ask serious “What If” questions, but not too early to quietly ponder a few of them.
Longtime media member George Von Benko was the first to report on Matt Murray, during the first period of the game:
As Myron Cope used to say a little birdie told me that Matt Murray is sidelined with a sore hamstring!!
— George Von Benko (@VonBenko) April 13, 2017
After the game, Richie Walsh of KDKA TV spotted Murray leaving the arena with a limp
Just saw Pens Goalie Matt Murray leaving arena with a significant limp @CBSPittsburgh
— Rich Walsh KDKA (@RichieWalsh) April 13, 2017
If Murray is not ready until Game 4 or later, the Penguins situation will dictate the starting goalie. If Fleury is playing well and the Penguins have a commanding lead, it’s likely Fleury would finish the series. Anything less than the above, and Murray likely returns to the net.
The debate will begin if Fleury finishes the series quickly with strong play, much like Murray did last season.
–The Penguins showed killer instinct. After breaking through for a 2-0 lead, the Penguins went after the Blue Jackets even harder. Moments after Bonino scored the Penguins second goal, he nearly added the third with a two-on-one.
–Phil Kessel, Bryan Rust, and Nick Bonino again dominated the score sheet in a big game. Kessel has always been a game player, going back to the 2005 World Junior Championships when 16-year-old Kessel was a dominant force for Team USA. The trend extended through his only playoff performance with the Toronto Maple Leafs and last season’s Cup run.
–Rust and Bonino convert chances in big games. It isn’t a coincidence. They’re big game players.
–Scott Wilson missed most of the first period after being hit hard on his first shift. Wilson was not a factor and the Penguins fourth line, centered by Carter Rowney, was frequently hemmed into their own zone.
–Josh Archibald may get a look in Game 2. Or at least should. His brand of fast and physical hockey with a dash of offense would be a nice fit in this series.
–Starting a backup goalie in Game 1 was a darkly poetic twist which mirrored the start of the 2016 playoffs when injuries to both Fleury and Murray forced the Penguins to turn to backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff, Mr. Game 1. Mr. Game 1.
The Columbus Blue Jackets had the advantage against the Penguins defensemen, in the Penguins zone.
Olli Maatta had a good first period and a spotty second period. Brian Dumoulin had several rough shifts leading to unforced errors such as failure to clear the zone and turnovers.
The Penguins forwards en masse played complete games, which bailed out the Penguins defense. The additional work by the Penguins forwards are harder minutes, which exposes them to more punishment and injury. Unless the Penguins defense improves, playing deep in the zone will be the only way the Penguins advance.
The Blue Jackets will look to build on that advantage.
The Penguins will stick with the patient “bend but don’t break” strategy as long it keeps working. According to the Columbus Blue Jackets, head coach John Tortorella said his team needs to fight harder to get into the dirty areas.
Game 2 will feature open ice physicality as the Blue Jackets try to clear space between the dots. As a result, more penalties are sure to occur, which means officiating could play a larger role.
The Penguins are sitting pretty. Their winning formula is replicable. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel were strong.
The Penguins looked like the better team, even when they weren’t.
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