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Opinion: For Game 4, Murray's the best bet

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This isn't meant to be a hot take (promise!) but down 2 games to 1, the Penguins need to play their best goalie. That would be Matt Murray.

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

That rushing sound from the north might have been Pandora's box opening back up. Marc-Andre Fleury, playing behind a defense that didn't do him any favors, conceded 4 goals in 12:52 and got pulled from Game 3 last night. Matt Murray went in his place, stopping 19/20 the rest of the way.

Down 2-1 in the series, now what?

Mike Sullivan may or may not know, but he wasn't going to say on Wednesday night.

What seems telling though, is that he didn't immediately head the inevitable goalie decision/controversy off at the pass. Everyone knows and readily admits that Marc-Andre Fleury is the singular reason the Penguins are still playing hockey in the 3rd round of the playoffs. He won the series against a strong Columbus Blue Jackets team that heavily out-shot the Pens. He then won the series against the best regular season in the league in the Washington Capitals, another team that heavily out-shot the Pens.

Everyone knows and readily admits that Marc-Andre Fleury is the singular reason the Penguins are still playing hockey in the 3rd round of the playoffs

And coming into Game 3 against Ottawa, Fleury carried a sterling .931 save percentage in the first 14 games of the playoffs Yet after one bad game- and that's bad from the team in front as much as the goalie- Sullivan isn't committing to Fleury right away. Seems telling.

A possible reason? Fleury's also the guy with a career playoff .906 save % from 2007-16 before this magical run. While a lot of that isn't too meaningful now, it's likely some regression is coming sooner than later, Fleury hasn't really ever shown he was capable of carrying a super-high save % for a long stretch of time (sans the 2008 playoffs of almost a decade ago when he did have a .933 sav% in 20 games). Is Fleury going to keep a .930% for the the future? If so, he would be the choice. I suspect probably not.

Just because Fleury's the over-riding reason the Pens have gotten to this point, is that reason enough that he deserves to get another start to bounce back and carry on? A ton of fans will think so. And I've no business to tell you how to think, that's a reasonable position to have. Heaven knows Fleury got the Pens here, and it would be noble to give him the chance to help get the team back on track again.

However, I don't think the question is really best served to take into account the past 6 weeks or 6 months or last playoff or 10 playoffs ago....The real question is a simple one: which goalie is more likely to give the Pens a better chance to win in Game 4?

It's a loaded question in that Fleury didn't deny the Pens a chance to win Game 3, the team did plenty well on their own. Make no mistake, had Murray started, Pittsburgh still loses that game with that effort. Everyone, even the players in post-game interviews have acknowledged that.

The determination I make on the question leads me believe the answer is a simple one. The better goalie on the team is more likely to give a better performance. The best goalie on the Penguins is Matt Murray. Fleury has been a red-hot goalie, however he didn't look so red hot last night, and to me it's just as simple as playing the better keeper.

I said above history doesn't truly matter in determining the answer to a forward-looking question, but I do think there is a telling illustration. Fleury in these playoffs, for which he deserves every bit of praise given, has 8 "quality starts" (definition below*) out of 15 total starts for a 53.3% rate. That's an strong level.  Murray last playoff? provided 14/21 for an eye-popping 66.7%. Just from my perspective the "out of sight out of mind" type of recency bias is in play. Yes, Fleury has been great recently, but no that doesn't speak to a lot of certainty that he will provide a higher level of play than Matt Murray would on Friday night.

Naturally, this year's team isn't last year's. That's a valid retort I can hear already. Murray's QS rate in the 2016-17 regular season was 55.3% to Fleury's 47.1%. Also, last year Murray had to make more pure saves/game vs. Washington in 2016 than Fleury did vs WSH in 2017 so I don't see it as an automatic, argument-clinching point that Pittsburgh was some sort of juggernaut last season defensively, or that Murray had some super-easy path to success. It certainly is different, but those differences aren't in where the answer to the question lies- because the answer is to choose the better goalie, not get bogged down in the semantics to try and spin-zone into what you want to believe anyways.

I'm sure this will be an emotional and passionate debate. I don't expect evidence or opinion to sway many who will feel Fleury should get the call on Game 4. It will be a very pivotal decision for Sullivan to make.

Ironically, since so much of this playoff's goalie situation has mirrored last year (only in reverse), it was in the Eastern Conference Finals the last time Sully had to make a tough goalie decision. It was Murray this time getting pulled in favor of Fleury in the middle of a game (2016's Game 4 of the ECF) that the Pens would lose to tie the series with Tampa at 2 games a piece. For Game 5, Sullivan chose to give Murray a night off and went with Fleury, who wasn't really impressive stopping just 21/25 including an OT goal 53 seconds in. Sullivan quickly went back to Murray and the team rallied to win the final two games of the series- with Murray giving up only 3 total goals in the two games.

So, if there's a silver lining it might be that at least the situation happened a game earlier this year. Both goalies might yet get the chance to start (at least) one more game a piece. We will see what way Sullivan goes. I suspect, by not going to immediately name Fleury his Game 4 starter that Sullivan will go back to the goalie he has always favored, and the one who has delivered more regularly.

That, of course, would be Matt Murray. Though the Pens owe everything to MAF for getting them this far, I believe it's still the right call to play the best player possible in order to achieve the best chance of winning in Game 4. It's not emotional, certainly not personal, just an assessment of playing the goalie more likely to stop more pucks.

It's Murray.

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A "quality start", as developed by Rob Vollman:

An idea blatantly lifted from baseball, Quality Starts were one of Hockey Prospectus' first contributions back in 2009 as a measure of whether a goaltender "gave his team a chance to win". In order to record a Quality Start, the starting goalie must stop at least a league average number of shots (typically 91.3% prior to 2009-10, and 91.7% since), or play at least as well as a replacement-level goalie (88.5%) while allowing two goals or fewer.