There is no greater X-factor for the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins than the ability of Matt Murray and/or Tristan Jarry to solidify the goaltending position.
If one (or both) can do that, the Penguins could absolutely emerge as a Stanley Cup favorite and perhaps even win the whole damn thing. The rest of the team is that good.
If neither one can, it could also be a very short postseason.
Given the way both goalies were playing before the season shutdown there is still some debate as to which player should get the opportunity when play resumes, and how long of a leash they should get once they take the starting spot. Dissecting what we see and hear from this mini training camp and series of scrimmages is not going to give us any kind of a clear picture on anything. It has been months since these guys actually played an NHL game.
Having said that, the goaltending question is still a very valid one to ask. I just do not know how we answer it until we actually see these guys play in real games. The problem with that is the playoff format is so wild this year that it does not really give much room for error.
Because of that, and because of the way the Penguins never really made a commitment to either goalie this season, it seems entirely possible (if not likely) that we will see a goaltending switch at some point in these playoffs.
It would not be an unheard of development for them, and it would not necessarily be a bad thing based on recent history. Let us take a look back at some of the recent times the Penguins needed to make a goaltending switch in the playoffs.
The Penguins’ 2017 Stanley Cup defense began with Marc-Andre Fleury back in the crease.
During the regular season he and Murray mostly split the goaltending duties, but a late season injury to the latter forced the former back into the lineup.
It ended up being some of the finest postseason goaltending the Penguins have ever received. From both goalies.
Even though this postseason ended with the Penguins’ second consecutive championship, this particular team was not quite as dominant as the previous year. They relied HEAVILY on goaltending to win, and had it not been for the out-of-this-world play of Fleury in the first and second rounds against Columbus and Washington the Penguins would have almost certainly seen their dreams of a repeat come to an end in one of those series (most likely against Washington).
But for as good as Fleury played at the start of that postseason it only seemed to be a matter of when, and not if, Murray would reclaim the starting spot. He was the reigning Stanley Cup winning goalie, everybody knew the crease was going to belong to him the next season, and there was already a perception that coach Mike Sullivan preferred him to Fleury.
The “when” turned out to be after Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final when Fleury surrendered four goals on nine shots in a 5-1 loss. It would be the final game Fleury would ever play for the Penguins.
It was not only after Fleury had carried them through the first two rounds, but it was also just one game after he pitched a shutout in Game 2 of the series. But with the Penguins now suddenly trailing the series to the underdog Senators, Sullivan made the switch. It is impossible to argue the results. Murray ended up playing brilliantly in the rest of the series and the Stanley Cup Final, wrapping up the championship run with consecutive shutouts in Game 5 and 6 against the Nashville Predators.
The Penguins had to use three different goalies on their way to the Stanley Cup.
With Murray and Fleury both sidelined at the start of the Round 1 series against the New York Rangers, it was Jeff Zatkoff that ended up getting the Game 1 start (and win!).
From there, Murray was the first of the regular goalies to return and took over for the remainder of the Rangers’ series, the entire Washington series, and most of the Tampa Bay series in the Eastern Conference Final.
Much like the 2017 playoffs, there was still an expectation that a change could happen. At this point Murray was still a rookie (with little NHL experience) and Fleury was the long-time established starter. The question remained on how long the Penguins could continue to ride the hot hand before turning back to their franchise goalie.
In Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final, it happened. After Murray surrendered four goals in a period and a half he was replaced by Fleury for the remainder of that game, and then for the pivotal Game 5 of the series back in Pittsburgh.
It was not a permanent change.
After losing Game 5 in overtime (with Fleury allowing a late game-tying goal in the third period, and then the winner just 53 seconds into overtime) the Penguins went back to Murray for Game 6 where he backstopped the team to consecutive wins to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final.
This time period was probably the low-point of Fleury’s career in Pittsburgh.
Entering this postseason he had already had a couple of infamous postseason flameouts (with the most significant being the year prior) and the Penguins had made the decision to bring in a bonafide starter (Tomas Vokoun) to serve as his backup.
With the heavily favored Penguins on the ropes in the first round against the New York Islanders, and with Fleury struggling through another tough postseason, coach Dan Bylsma made decision to start Vokoun in Game 5 of the series.
Vokoun responded with a 31-save shutout in a 4-0 win.
Vokoun would go on to win six of his first seven starts that postseason, with the only loss in that stretch being a 2-1 overtime loss in Ottawa on a night where he stopped 46 out of 48 shots.
His performance helped the Penguins reach the Eastern Conference Final where their Stanley Cup dreams would come to an end thanks to a defensive and goaltending buzzsaw in Boston.
While every “what if” situation in Penguins history revolves around the 1992-93 team, this one is not far behind in my book.
They seemed destined for a Stanley Cup Final showdown with the Colorado Avalanche and had the most dangerous offensive lineup in the league, with no team really being a close second.
This goaltending change was the result of an injury.
The playoffs began with Tom Barrasso starting the first four games against the Washington Capitals. But he was forced to leave Game 4 after just one period due to muscle spasms and was replaced by Ken Wregget.
In one of the great relief performances in franchise history, Wregget stopped 53 out of 54 shots (incuding an overtime penalty shot!) in the now famous Petr Nedved game that helped the Penguins even the series.
With Barrasso still sidelined, Wregget started the next eight games as the Penguins easily dispatched the Capitals in Games 5 and 6 and then New York Rangers in Round 2.
Wregget’s final appearance that postseason would be his Game 1 start in the Eastern Conference Final against the Florida Panthers, where he would surrender five goals in a 5-1 loss.
Barrasso was back in the lineup for Game 2, winning three of the next five games to get the Penguins to a Game 7 in Pittsburgh. But a Tom Fitzgerald center ice slap shot helped end the Penguins’ postseason run and powered the upstart Panthers to one of the biggest postseason upsets in recent memory.