After the Penguins' 3-2 win in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final on Friday night to even up their series against the Ottawa Senators, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan was asked if he'd made his much-discussed goaltending change strictly to get better play in net, or if he was trying to send a message to the team in general that they'd need to be better following a 5-1 loss in Game 3.
"We're not making change for the sake of change, if that's what you're asking," he said. "We're trying to make lineup decisions on a nightly basis, or a game-by-game basis, that we think give us the best chance to win."
I have no doubt that that's true, but embedded in that question was an observation about the series through the first three games -- one Sullivan knew as well as anybody.
Yes, Marc-Andre Fleury lasted less than 13 minutes in Game 3, allowing four first-period goals in a performance shaky enough to remind the hockey world that there were once real questions about his big game reliability. But all the talk of which goalie should start Game 4 overshadowed perhaps an even more pressing concern: that the Penguins -- the highest-scoring team in the league during the regular season -- were having trouble finding the net. They'd tallied just three goals in the first three game of the series (or, to put that in perspective, exactly how many goals the Sens scored on Fleury in a 2:18 span on Wednesday night during their four-goal first period).
Give Matt Murray the credit he's due for a solid performance on Friday night. He survived some early pressure by Ottawa -- including stopping a good chance by Mike Hoffman and two Viktor Stalberg follow-ups from the doorstep less than two minutes in -- and prevented the Senators from jumping out to a first-period lead as they did in Game 3. He withstood a late push, too, thwarting another third-period Senators rally, with a great stop of a wide-open Erik Karlsson blast from the face-off dot with some ten seconds left serving as an exclamation point on the game. (That last save came on a Senators power play, which is now 0-25 in the last nine games.) And in between, Murray was exactly as good as the Penguins needed him to be.
He can't be faulted too much on either of the two Senators goals: The first required a brilliant pass from Bobby Ryan, and the second required about a hundred deflections. Meanwhile, he provided plenty of highlights, including his particularly pretty save on Derick Brassard:
All of that is surely a relief to Sullivan, who'd have been second-guessed for days if Murray, one of last year's playoff heroes, wasn't sharp in his first start since April 6 -- even if the decision to go with Murray was thoroughly defensible. But the play in front of Murray must have been a relief to the Pens coach, as well. Pittsburgh played with the sufficient desperation of a team in danger of falling behind 3-1 in a series, and Sidney Crosby, under a microscope of his own, was very good, scoring a goal and an assist, with a team-high five shots on goal. (By comparison, he'd had one goal and six shots through the first three games of the series combined.) "I thought he had one of his best games [Friday]," said Sullivan.
But perhaps that effort should have been expected following a frustrating Game 3: Under Sullivan, the Penguins are now 12-2 following a postseason defeat. Game 5 is Sunday afternoon. All eyes will be on the net.