TAMPA -- Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan described his goaltending situation as imperfect.
It won't get any easier.
With the Tampa Bay Lightning leading the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals 3-2, Sullivan has another difficult decision to make heading into Game 6 on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET) at Amalie Arena.
When teams reach this point of the postseason, it's only normal to focus on goaltending. A total of eight goalies have been used in both conference finals, and that number could increase as each series extends deeper. In the East, it was an interesting decision for the Penguins to go with Fleury, who hadn't started a game since he suffered a concussion on March 31. He played the third period of Game 4 after the Lightning jumped out to a 4-0 lead, and he looked good in that 20 minutes of play, but his rust was evident and the Lightning finished with a 4-3 victory.
Sullivan and his staff decided to stick with Fleury for Game 5, and it ended in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Lightning. In fact, the Penguins held leads of 2-0 and 3-2 before the Lightning won in OT. Before the Penguins traveled here in preparation for Game 6, Sullivan said choosing between the two goaltenders would be a tough decision.
"We believe in the guys we have," he said. "We think we have quality people. It's an imperfect situation. All things considered, we're trying to make the best decisions that we can that we think give the team the best chance to win and that's what we do, and that's what we go with. We'll continue to do that."
Why Murray should start: Sure, if Fleury hadn't suffered the head injury, he would have started the playoffs and all of this would be moot. But that wasn't the case. The Penguins needed to rely on Murray, 21, and he totally took advantage of the opportunity. Until Game 5 of this series, goaltending was not an issue. There's also no reason to suggest Murray is rattled or has lost confidence. Before Game 5, he had started the previous 13 postseason games. He came out of the gate on fire, posting a 6-1 record with a .944 save percentage. His 3-3 mark in his past six games, along with a .892 save percentage, should not be alarming. The competition only gets better at this point of the season, and the Penguins play well in front of Murray.
Why Fleury should not start: Lightning coach Jon Cooper made an interesting point after Game 5: "The only thing we really knew is he hadn't played a lot. He played one period against us, and I think it takes time for guys to get the feel for the game." Fleury allowed four goals on 25 shots and admitted after the game he didn't feel great in net. That right there should send up a red flag. If he's down on his game, and his teammates hear that, it could have a negative effect. This is a telling statistic: Fleury allowed the four goals on the last 14 shots he faced.
"I thought Marc made some big saves for us, especially early in the game," Sullivan said. "He really settled into the game in the first period and made some real big saves. He might have got away from it a little bit as the game went on. To Marc's defense, it's a tough situation when you haven't played in a long time and you get thrown into a high-stakes environment like that."
Yes, Fleury is one of the faces of the organization and won a Stanley Cup in 2009, but now is not the time to become sentimental. Go with the guy who could be the future between the pipes.
Meanwhile, at the other end: Without the services of Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop, there has not been a drop off with Andrei Vasilevskiy in net for the Lightning. He's 3-2 in this series since Bishop suffered a lower-leg injury early in Game 1. Vasilevskiy, 21, has made timely saves and also shows the confidence to perform on this stage. You know it's a good sign when after an overtime win, Cooper doesn't even need to mention his goaltender. Yes, when Bishop is healthy and cleared to play, he will be the starter, but with the way Vasilevskiy has played, there's no reason to worry.