There was a real question if Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan would go back to Marc-Andre Fleury in net for Game 4. Matt Murray was pressed into mop-up duty late in the first period of Game 3 and stopped 19 of 20 shots in the 5-1 loss.
Matt Murray was the hot hand last season and the Penguins rode that to a Stanley Cup. Murray has a different demeanor than Fleury. Murray can provide an icy calm or surliness, in different situations. Fleury is the more sensitive goalie. He wears a smile on his face whenever possible.
Also, Fleury has easily been the Penguins MVP of the playoffs. There isn’t a close second. However, Murray was anointed the Penguins starting goalie this season. So, the choice wasn’t clear.
And that’s why Sullivan didn’t play games with this one. It was too important. He put Fleury in the starter’s net for the off-day practice, which accomplished several things: It quelled speculation. It reassured Fleury.
The latter may be most important. Sullivan couldn’t leave Fleury twisting in the wind for two days. Not now. Not after everything Fleury has soldiered through. Fleury needed that vote of confidence and Sullivan, who has more frequently offered such support to Murray, handled it properly.
To leave Fleury exposed until tomorrow would have likely meant a sleepless or distracted night. I don’t care what athletes tell the press or even their teammates, uncertainty is a nightmare. It can be easier to deal with the anger of a bad decision than uncertainty.
Before Game 3, Fleury allowed just one regulation goal in his past three games. His Game 3 flop was less a result of bad netminding and mostly the result of a tired, flat-footed team in front of him which looked ready to go home. Goaltending is a 6-man position (or 6-woman). Last night, Fleury must have felt like an army of one.
Sullivan has again shown himself to have a solid understanding of the personalities and dynamics on his team. He eschewed his flare for coaching head-games and declined gamesmanship to support a player who needed it.
It wasn’t an easy call to back to Fleury, and by doing so definitively, Sullivan minimized potential effects of the Game 3 debacle. He’s allowed Fleury to focus on Game 4 which gives the team its best chance to win.
That’s a solid coaching job in a difficult situation. Perhaps that is “showing resilience” or “coaching the right way”. Sullivan gets a stick tap for a situation well handled.