After all this time there is only a few days left until the Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens meet for Game 1 of the qualification round, but don’t think the Pens will tip their hand and talk about which goalie will be in net.
“It is a very difficult decision,” coach Mike Sullivan said on Wednesday. “These guys want the net, they’re competitive guys and I understand that. The coaching staff will make the best decision in terms of what we think is best for the team.
“But we really like how both of these guys have tracked throughout the training camp to this point. We got one more opportunity to watch last night in the exhibition game. I thought they both played well. So the coaches will do their very best to put the best personnel group on the ice regardless of what the position is.”
Sullivan’s coyness aside, most still expect it will be Matt Murray in net. Murray ended Phase 3 training camp on an upward trajectory and played well against Philadelphia, a game he started. He figures to get the opportunity to start the next one as well.
“In terms of the sightlines, it was good just to see some traffic, some game-like scenarios,” Murray said. “I thought the team did a really good job for the most part of keeping guys to the outside. I was able to feel the puck a little bit and see some traffic. It was good.”
Tristan Jarry will be ready and if Pens’ history is any indicator, he probably will be playing sooner than later.
“I think it’s just taking it day-by-day and making sure our practice habits are staying where they need to be,” Jarry said. “For Matt and I, it’s just preparing like we both would be playing. Whoever gets the call on Saturday, we’ll be ready.”
One note mentioned by NBC analyst (and former NHL goaltender Brian Boucher) during the Pens/Flyers broadcast was raising a possibility that teams might rotate goaltenders more. Boucher’s reasoning was sound — teams have been off for four months. Is it reasonable to expect a goalie to carry a top performance every-other-night for an extended period of time in this environment?
Clearly a team like Montreal with a cornerstone goalie like Carey Price isn’t going to consider this, but many teams nowadays have more of a 1A/1B arrangement in net. For teams with goalie depth, rotating or monitoring how fresh a goalie is could be an advantage.
The common thinking is that a “playoff goalie” settles in and plays every single game. And while there’s something to be said for defining a role and settling into a groove and rhythm in that position, this is also not a common season. It’s probably unfair to expect any goalie’s mental and physical faculties to be as sharp right now as they typically would be on the eve of the playoffs.
Sullivan and the Penguins have some history with this type of concept of not anchoring strictly to one goalie. Go back to 2016. Murray was then a fresh-faced rookie. He only had 13 career NHL regular season starts that spring when he got in the net and started 13 straight playoff games. At first, it was lights out, Murray was 6-1 through his first seven games with a .944 save%.
Then, Murray hit a bit of a skid as his starts piled up. Murray went through a stretch where he was just 3-3 with a .892 save% and got pulled after two periods in Game 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a series the Pens found themselves tied 2-2 after losing Game 4.
At this point, Sullivan tabbed Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 5. It didn’t work out (the Pens took a 3-2 lead into the third period, blew it and Fleury gave up the OT goal 53 seconds into the extra time) and Sullivan went right back to Murray with his back to the wall.
Murray took it from there, with a 6-2 record going the rest of the way to help the Pens win the Stanley Cup.
‘‘Every player goes through their ups and downs, times when they’re at the top of their game, and times where it can be a bit of a challenge,’’ Sullivan said during the 2016 SC Final. ‘‘I think that’s just human nature. Our players are no different. It never changes our opinions of these guys or how we feel about them.”
“It’s our responsibility as their coaching staff to try to help them through the process.’’
Given that we’re coming off a pandemic break —and the fact that neither Murray nor Jarry were exactly playing lights out in the 2020 portion of the 2020 season the “process” this time around will be unique given circumstances.
It might make a lot of sense for Sullivan to embrace more of a rotation in the process of choosing a starting netminder. This is certainly something he must have stewed upon all spring as the NHL made plans to resume play.
A coach isn’t one to often change a lineup or switch goaltenders when winning, but especially in a five game series, consideration for adjustments must not only be made but quickly implemented. The Pens might not publicly want to talk about their Game 1 starter, but given the unique circumstance of this playoff after such a long layoff — and a schedule where there could be up to five games in eight days from August 1st-8th — losses by Pittsburgh likely means that both goalies will be playing.