Matt Murray improved to 30-10-4 with yesterday's 3-2 win over the Hurricanes. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Not long after the Penguins won last season’s Stanley Cup, I made a not-so-bold prediction: The team would experience a goalie controversy that would not cease until Matt Murray or Marc-Andre Fleury departed.
It’s played out like that. Not always with any degree of fervor, but it’s omnipresent. Fans choose sides, especially on idiot cesspool Twitter.
Coach Mike Sullivan has handled the goaltending properly. Each had a fair chance to win the No. 1 job until mid-January, when Murray started getting the bulk of the work for the best of reasons: Superior play and stats.
Fleury hadn’t experienced this. He had been the Penguins’ undisputed No. 1 dating back to 2005-06, his first full NHL campaign.
This season, Fleury played well when Murray was hurt but faltered when Murray was available. Fleury has performed better since the March 1 NHL trade deadline passed.
Murray hasn’t. His goals-against average in March was 2.85, his save percentage .910. Both numbers are appreciably worse than his marks for the season.
Murray’s rebound control has faltered. More disturbing, he’s been shaky with his glove. Murray has the yips, as if he doesn’t trust his catching hand.
Murray is 22, an awkward age for a goalie.
It’s far too early to compare him to Jim Carey, who won the Vezina Trophy at 21 with Washington in 1996. The Penguins exposed Carey’s faulty side-to-side movement in that season’s playoffs, chasing him from the crease in three games. Carey was out of the NHL by 1999.
Carey went from hockey’s top goalie to net defective. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
Murray is still the Penguins’ starter, should be, and will be when the playoffs arrive. But what if Murray falters when the playoffs begin?
Ex-NHLers Ray Ferraro and Mike Rupp guested on my radio program, and each offered a different approach for the Penguins’ playoff goaltending.
Ferraro endorsed starting the playoffs with Murray. But if Murray faltered, Ferraro would replace him with Fleury as early as Game 2 of the Penguins’ first-round series. Two starts, then switch.
Rupp disagreed. Rupp said the Penguins should start Murray, and stick with him, come what may.
I lean toward Ferraro’s thinking. If the Penguins stick with Murray through negative and losing circumstances, the advantage gained by keeping Fleury is lost. Fleury would just be cover in case of injury. His talent merits better.
My hook for Murray would not be quick. But I would consider all options.
Despite an outstanding record and their status as defending champs, the Penguins seem in a precarious state as the postseason beckons.
Their injury woes will be somewhat lessened by their first playoff game, but defenseman Kris Letang and winger Carl Hagelin are unlikely to be available.
Letang’s absence is borderline crippling. Justin Schultz is good, but he’s not a one-man breakout, as adept at playing behind Sidney Crosby, or nearly the minutes-eater.
Hagelin doesn’t often score, but he may be hockey’s best forechecker and serves as the Penguins’ pace car, setting the tempo.
The unavailability of key players can be made up for by brilliant goaltending. By the goalie stealing games. Last year, Murray only did that during the Washington series. Otherwise, it wasn’t necessary.
This year, it might be more often necessary. Is Murray up to it?
The decision to unload Fleury at season’s end and go with Murray moving forward has already been made. It’s the move just about every NHL GM would make for a variety of reasons, most notably age.
But the situation smacks of what the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts dealt with when they chose between quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck.
The Colts drafted Luck first overall in 2012. Manning was 36, and the Colts felt they had to play Luck. So Manning was shipped to Denver, where he won one Super Bowl and reached another. With Luck at QB, the Colts have yet to make it past the American Football Conference final.
True, Manning was coming off neck problems that required two surgeries and caused him to miss the 2011 season. Murray won the Stanley Cup last season, so he’s a much more proven commodity than Luck was.
But the same possibility exists: The old guy goes somewhere else and does more in the short term than the young guy that got kept.
At 32, Fleury is hardly washed up. At 22, Murray’s long term is far from assured. With Crosby 29 and Evgeni Malkin 30, the Penguins are a short-term team.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays at WXDX-FM (105.9).