Facing Off is a column debating hockey’s hottest topics. From current events like trades and hat tricks to bigger-picture stuff like scandals and expansion — you name it, we’re debating it. Albeit, not always with a serious tone. We’re keeping this column light, so keep that in mind when reading, and feel free to join in on the fun by leaving a comment. Follow us on Twitter (@FacingOff_THW) and get in on the debate there too.
No, it’s not Monday but, yes, it’s time for another edition of Facing Off — the 90th edition, for those keeping count.
We are debuting a new format today, transitioning away from the Monday morning long read — debating five topics at a time — to instead hit the hottest topics as they happen and before they cool off.
Whenever time permits, Facing Off will now weigh in on breaking news — debating individual topics in real time.
There is no more controversial topic in hockey today than the Pittsburgh Penguins’ decision to start Matt Murray over Marc-Andre Fleury tonight.
— Facing Off (@FacingOff_THW) May 19, 2017
Both goalies have backstopped this franchise to Stanley Cups — Murray last year and Fleury in 2009 — so the fan base is divided, and both have their supporters and detractors in the media as well.
For anybody out of the loop, Fleury had started all 15 games for Pittsburgh in this year’s playoffs, with a 9-6 record to date (.924 save percentage and 2.56 goals-against average).
Murray had been sidelined by a lower-body injury and only recently returned as Fleury’s backup, making his first relief appearance in Wednesday’s 5-1 defeat to the Ottawa Senators in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final. The host Sens blitzed the Penguins and chased Fleury with four goals on nine shots in the first period en route to taking a 2-1 series lead.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan slept on his goaltending decision not once, but twice before declaring Murray the starter this morning ahead of tonight’s Game 4. A decision that drew mixed reviews and warranted a Facing Off debate.
Andrew Forbes, one of four regular contributors to this column and THW’s lead writer for the Toronto Maple Leafs, was quick to offer up his opinion. As was Joshua Crockett, a Penguins writer for THW who was passionate about the topic on Twitter. And yours truly, a former goalie, couldn’t resist tossing in my two cents.
Did the Penguins make the right decision starting Murray over Fleury?
FORBES: While I would normally say that it’s nowhere near wrong to start a goaltender with career numbers like Murray, I do think this is a big mistake for the Penguins. Sure, Murray has a career goals-against average of 2.41 and save percentage of .923. And in the playoffs, it’s .924 and 2.05, but Fleury got them this far this season. While he had an off game, the entire Penguins team played poorly to lose 5-1 in Game 3.
I believe there are Penguins players that have a sort of loyalty to The Flower. While they stand a great chance at winning with Murray in the net, benching Fleury basically puts the writing on the wall for the Penguins’ netminder regarding his position within the club. No-move clause or not, I think Fleury has officially lost his job to Murray, and I think it truly is a mistake to switch up your tactics now.
FISHER: I’ll tell you the right answer after tonight’s game, or after this Pittsburgh-Ottawa series. For now, I think it’s fair to call this a shocking decision, though Sullivan’s hesitation to support Fleury following Game 3 and again following Thursday’s practice made the switch to Murray less surprising. Still, the Penguins wouldn’t be in the conference final without Fleury’s heroics at times and he’s shown the ability to bounce back in these playoffs. Remember, he got lit up by Washington in the last round and rebounded to post a shutout in Game 7 — in Washington, no less.
That said, there is an unwritten rule that athletes shouldn’t lose their jobs to injury. That applies to Murray here. He got hurt in warm-ups prior to Pittsburgh’s playoff opener against Columbus and Fleury filled in admirably. Good for Fleury, but Murray proved in two-plus periods on Wednesday night — stopping 19 of 20 shots over 47 minutes of work — that he’s ready to take back the net that belonged to him this season.
The net that could belong to Murray for the next decade, providing he doesn’t lose it back to Fleury based on poor play tonight. If that happens, and Pittsburgh falls behind 3-1 and goes on to lose this series, Sullivan might lose his job too. Seriously.
Sticking with Fleury was the “safer” route, and you have to feel for Fleury if he now becomes a footnote to another championship — forced out of the crease more than halfway through a playoff run and potentially getting pushed out of Pittsburgh ahead of next month’s expansion draft.
Switching to Murray is a ballsy move, but I support it. He was and is Pittsburgh’s No. 1 goalie — both of the present and the future — and you always go with your best at this time of the year. Now let’s see how it plays out. No pressure, Murray.
Third Man In
CROCKETT: Here’s where I’m coming from when it comes to Fleury and Murray. Like Mike Necciai (fellow Penguins writer for THW) mentioned on Twitter, Fleury lost his job to injury last season. OK. But he’s playing at a high level. Aside from Game 3, he’s been the Penguins’ best player throughout the playoffs — and he shut out the league’s top team in an extremely high-pressure game.
During Game 3, the five in front of Fleury were flat. No energy. They expected another Ottawa trap game where any 50/50 puck would be conceded to the Penguins. That wasn’t the case and, after four goals in a short period of time, I was certain Fleury’s benching was a “shame on all of you for leaving him high and dry like this” type move.
Now that Murray is in net, it’s very clear that the only chance Fleury stood was to shut out his way to a Stanley cup victory.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Shut out the President's Trophy winners in game 7? Team let Fleury down in game 3. #Penguins
— Joshua Crockett (@joshuajcrockett) May 19, 2017
Who won this round of Facing Off? Feel free to weigh-in with your opinions in the comments below. We will be checking in periodically to both defend and expand on our initial answers. If you want us to face-off over a topic, we’re open to suggestions as well.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.