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.