Mike Halford

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For the second straight year, Sullivan gambles with goalies

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Changing starting netminders midway through the Eastern Conference final is nothing new for Mike Sullivan.

Last year, against Tampa Bay, he did it twice, replacing Matt Murray with Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 5, then going back to Murray for Games 6 and 7.

Now Sullivan’s at it again.

As reported earlier, the Pens will give Murray his first start of this postseason tonight when they take on Ottawa in Game 4. The decision comes after Murray relieved Fleury 12:52 into the first period of Game 3, after Fleury allowed four goals on nine shots.

Murray finished with 19 saves on 20 shots in an eventual 5-1 loss.

Sullivan was equally tight-lipped last year, refusing to share his reasons for switching things up. And it never really became an issue, as Murray returned from his one-game hiatus to win six of eight and backstop Pittsburgh to the title.

But the story this year isn’t the change.

It’s the inherent gamble that comes with it.

There’s risk in going with Murray, who’s last start came 43 days ago (and who wasn’t even healthy enough to dress until Game 7 of the Washington series).

Will he be sharp enough? The 22-year-old looked solid in relief on Wednesday night, but there’s a significant difference between mop-up duty and starting, on the road, with your team on the verge of going down 3-1 in a series.

And then there’s the Fleury angle.

The veteran netminder is beloved by his teammates, and has been consistently praised for his work this postseason. Prior to the start of the Sens series, Sullivan said Fleury deserved the starting gig because he had “played so well for us,” and was “really at the top of his game.”

What’s more, Fleury has done a solid job of bouncing back from tough outings. In Round 1, he gave up five goals in a Game 4 loss to Columbus, then stopped 49 shots for a win in Game 5. Against Washington in Round 2, he was beaten five times on 26 shots in Game 6. He then posted a 29-save shutout in Game 7.

With those quotes and that body of work, it’s fair to suggest his benching is a harsh decision.

But it’s not an unfamiliar one.

Bolts ‘very interested’ in extending Budaj

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Tampa Bay needs a backup for Andrei Vasilevskiy next season, and it might already have one in house.

Peter Budaj, acquired at the deadline in the Ben Bishop-to-Los Angeles trade, played well enough down the stretch to pique the interest of Bolts GM Steve Yzerman.

“We were very please with the finish to the season Peter had,” Yzerman said on Thursday, in an interview with WDAE 620 radio. “We’d very much be interested in bringing him back.”

Budaj, 34, was one of the biggest surprises in the league last year. He was originally signed to be the Kings’ No. 3 netminder, but ascended to the starting job after an injury to Jonathan Quick and ineffective play from Jeff Zatkoff.

It was a noteworthy development for a guy that played exactly one game during the ’15-16 campaign, and was out of the NHL entirely the year prior. Budaj responded by going 30-21-3 this season, with a .915 save percentage and 2.18 GAA — most of it with the Kings.

After joining the Bolts, he started four times and won three games as the club made a frenetic late push for a playoff spot.

This summer’s goalie market is expected to be crazy — it’s been active already, and it’s only the third week in May — so the Bolts might be smart to lock Budaj in now, rather than see how free agency unfolds. He’s coming off a one-year, $600,000 deal, so he could probably be retained on the cheap. And if he struggles, there’s always Kristers Gudlevskis in the system.

Gudlevskis, 24, has appeared in three career games with the Bolts, spending extensive time in the American League. He’s currently a restricted free agent.

Murray over Fleury? It’s sure looking that way (Update: It’s official)

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Matt Murray was the first goalie off the ice at Pittsburgh’s optional skate ahead of tonight’s Game 4 versus Ottawa.

While that doesn’t make anything official, it does set the stage for a dramatic change in net.

Marc-Andre Fleury, who has started every game for the Pens this postseason, stayed on the ice longer this morning, working out for close to an hour — usually indicative of the extra work a backup traditionally takes before a game.

Update: Pens head coach Mike Sullivan has officially announced that Murray will start, and Fleury will back up. Sullivan said Fleury handled the decision “like the professional that he always is.”

This marks the second consecutive postseason in which Sullivan’s made a bold goalie switch in the conference final.

Last year, in the fifth game against Tampa Bay, Sullivan went to Fleury as his starter after Murray struggled in Game 4. The move didn’t exactly pay off, as Fleury looked somewhat shaky in a 4-3 OT loss, and finished with just 21 saves on 25 shots (.840 save percentage).

In Game 6, the Pens went back to Murray, and he was excellent for the remainder of the series. The Bolts only beat him three times on 47 shots over the final two games, and Murray carried that stellar play over to the Stanley Cup Final, where he posted a .920 save percentage over six games.

Some opined that Sullivan was fortunate his flip-flopping didn’t cost the team.

Coyotes investing heavily in Euro scouting, after years of scraping by

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“I do feel like we’re paying the price for running relatively lean in our scouting department.”

The above quote (per Fox Sports Arizona) was from former Coyotes GM Don Maloney back in 2014, talking about how the club’s ownership issues — and, subsequently, his limited budget — resulted in a patchwork, skeleton scouting staff, and bad draft results.

Two years later, Maloney was fired. His replacement, John Chayka, has since set about correcting one of the major issues that plagued his predecessor. Especially in Europe.

“Almost a quarter of the league is now from European countries,” Chayka said of his bolstered scouting department, per Arizona Sports. “It’s gotten more and more competitive to find good players; NHL players.

“For us, this was something we wanted to invest in heavily.”

Though Maloney was able to reap some benefits from the Anthony LeBlanc-led ownership takeover four years ago, he was also saddled with the results of the previous regime. Per Fox Sports, prior to LeBlanc’s arrival the Coyotes had no scouts covering college free agents, and just a single European scout based in the Czech Republic.

He was responsible for covering the entire continent.

Now, compare that to what Chayka’s got in place:

Arizona has five European-based scouts. Thomas Carlsson is based in Sweden; Sergei Kuznetsov is based in Russia; Max Kolu is based in Finland; Robert Neuhauser is based in the Czech Republic and European Player Development Coach Brett Stewart is based in Norway. Those five scouts also canvas other hockey-playing European nations such as Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, France, Italy, Slovenia and the Baltic States.

In addition, Chayka takes several trips to Europe for scouting purposes (he attended the IIHF World Championship) and Chayka estimated that Director of Amateur Scouting Tim Bernhardt is in Europe “every five to six weeks” to evaluate talent.

The bolstered staff seems to be paying off.

Earlier this week, the Coyotes made a splash by signing veteran KHL forward Mario Kempe to a one-year deal. Kempe, 28, was a former Flyers draft pick that’s spent most of his pro career playing in Russia and his native Sweden. He 14 goals and 34 points in 56 games this year for KHL club Vityaz Podolsk.

2018 Olympics chief says NHL not being greedy, will cooperate

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LONDON (AP) The head of the Pyeongchang Olympics organizing committee said Thursday that the NHL isn’t being “greedy” preventing hockey stars going to the 2018 Games and he was willing to be flexible to meet their demands.

Organizing committee president Lee Hee-beom told The Associated Press on Thursday that “we are ready to cooperate.” Lee says he’s doesn’t know what the NHL’s conditions are “but whatever they ask – if it is acceptable for us – we will do our best.”

More: Pyeongchang organizers believe NHL still considering Olympics

During an interview in London, Lee added that “so far I don’t think they were so … greedy and they didn’t ask too many requests beyond our expectations.”

The International Ice Hockey Federation has also been willing to discuss options, but acknowledged a “game-changer” offer was likely needed for NHL team owners to change their minds about halting the league schedule for three weeks. The best players in the world have played in every Olympics since 1998.

The IIHF had already agreed to meet players’ travel and insurance costs when the International Olympic Committee ended its long-time commitment to pay. The NHL sought more concessions, but the IOC would not concede a share of marketing rights to a commercial league.

Related: NHL says no to 2018 Olympics