Written by The Burgh Blog writer: Austin Tocco
The next 24 hours for Mike Sullivan and his staff will not be easy to say the least. Many questions have to be answered by game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, questions that may be too difficult to answer. I am going to break down several key questions regarding the team following their game 4 performance, but first a quick summary of the game.
Everyone and their brother knew that the Penguins were going to get the best that Tampa has to offer, apparently the team did not. The Lightning came out firing on all cylinders by getting many pucks to the net, being physical, and making the 21 year old goaltender Matt Murray feel uncomfortable. The Tampa Bay Lightning scored 2 first period goals, and then added another 2 goals in the second period. Callahan, Sustr, Drouin, and Johnson scored for the Lightning to go up 4-0 against the Penguins going into the third period. To generate a potential spark, Mike Sullivan finally decided Murray has had enough and brought in franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury for the first time all post-season. Fleury shut the door in the third period stopping all 7 shots he faced, but it was not enough as the Penguins rally fell short losing by a score of 4-3. Kessel, Malkin, and Kunitz added tallies to the scoreboard for the Penguins. The Penguins finished with 38 shots and Tampa with 37.
The Penguins lost about all of control in the second period which led to the Drouin goal. Letang got a 4 minute double minor for roughing and cross checking which led directly to the 4th goal scored by the Lightning. After game 4, the media were firing many questions at Sullivan that he could not answer, if I was in Mike Sullivan’s shoes, this is what I would be thinking:
1. Do you question some of the character, effort, resilience, or leadership of this team after game 4?
As a coach at this time in the post-season, the last thing I would question would be the effort of the team, but the leadership might be completely different story. I truly thought that the players that have been here before (Letang, Malkin, Crosby, Fleury, and Cullen) would have better prepared this team for this game. Right before the game I said to myself, this is going to be the best game Tampa Bay plays, I really hope that we do not get over confident. Look what happened. The Penguins came out flat and gave up a goal just 27 seconds in. I truly believe that the Penguins will come out in game 5 with a laser focus and will prove that leadership is not an issue. But you cannot help but wonder, why the Penguins would be over confident going into game 4 in Tampa Bay, it just blows my mind, they had to have known that the Lightning were going to come out hard as ever. The Penguins were no match after 40 minutes.
I do give the team credit for the 3rd period comeback, I thought that the leaders of this team put their feet down and really showed excellent effort to attempt a comeback, but being down 4 goals to the Lightning is almost insurmountable. I might start to ask this question a little more after game 5, but hopefully the team will have already proved the critics wrong by coming out and destroying Tampa in game 5.
2. Murray or Fleury?
To be honest, I still do not know the answer to this question. Mike Sullivan really played it well in the post-game interviewing stating, “I have not even thought about it yet.” In reality though, how you could you not start the franchise leader in wins, Marc-Andre Fleury. Now this is just my personal opinion, I truly believe now is the time for Fleury to shine. I give Matt Murray all the credit in the world, Murray led the Penguins all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals and most of the goals given up, were not his fault, especially yesterday. Sullivan had the perfect opportunity to see what Fleury had to offer in that 3rd period and Fleury showed nothing but professionalism and displayed his all-star talents on center stage. Granted Fleury only saw 7 shots, but the quality of those shots were stellar opportunities for the Lightning to shut the door on the Penguins. I do not care what anyone says, the team absolutely got a spark from Fleury as he skated out onto the ice. This man’s resume is amazing, earning multiple team MVP’s, leading his team to 2 Stanley Cup’s, winning one of them. Fleury is the franchise goaltender of the Pittsburgh Penguins, an all-star, and he sits patiently on the bench waiting for Murray to get pulled to get his chance, just seems wrong to me. Murray played amazing, not taking anything away from his play, but the kid is 21 years old, with little to none playoff experience. Fleury has been in the league since 2003, he does not get rattled at this stage in the playoffs. Since Fleury finally had his opportunity to shine in game 4, I think it is time for Sullivan to ride out with his number one goaltender since day one, Marc-Andre Fleury.
3. With Daley out potentially long-term, who do you bring in to replace him?
Trevor Daley impacts this lineup in such a positive way. The way he handles the puck, his speed, and defensive skills earned him the second most ice-time on the Penguins roster. He is such a team player and would do anything to win a cup, now the Penguins must continue their quest without him. His status is still unknown, but by the looks of if, it does not look good. If I was Sullivan, I will tell you exactly what I would do, without a doubt. I would start 7 defensemen, adding Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta. I would then drop ever so fragile Conor Sheary.
After benching Sheary several times throughout the playoffs, the 5’8’’ winger has proven to be mismatched against the Tampa defense. Sheary does provide speed on the Malkin line, but his production is non-existent. Bringing in both Maatta and Pouliot would not put all the pressure on one of those young defensemen to contribute as much as Trevor Daley has. They both would not have to play the same amount as Daley has, in fact, both of their ice-times would decrease. It is not uncommon to see a team dress 7 defensemen, do not be surprised to see Sullivan go with it. As long as Maatta can finally find his feet, and Pouliot can be strong down low behind our goaltender, I believe that they can add to the success of this team going into the Stanley Cup Finals.
4. What to do with Evgeni Malkin?
I am truly starting to question the play of Penguins forward, Evgeni Malkin. What to do with him? There is nothing you can do at this point besides ride him out and see if he can start to play the way we are accustomed to seeing him play. You cannot just sit out one of the best players in the world, but his decision making seems to be extremely off. People might say, well, he did score a goal yesterday, or he has had many assists up to this point. It’s not what have you done, it’s what have you done for me lately. He looks like a fish out of water on the power-play and got embarrassed on several occasions by the Lightning. He has turned the puck over multiple times which led to key odd-man rushes for the Lightning. His effort is there, but his decision making just is atrocious right now. He wants to dazzle his way through 4 defenders with 7 foot long sticks, yeah that’s going to work. He needs to get the puck in deep and work the defenders from behind, after all, that is the game-plan. He is not 20 anymore, he cannot just depend on skill and speed to get through a defender like Victor Hedman or Anton Stralman, it is never going to happen. The critics are once again knocking on Geno’s door, it is his responsibility to prove them wrong, yet again. I think we will see a different Evgeni Malkin in game 5, I predict a meaningful goal by 71.
The Penguins and Lightning play Sunday at 8:00 EST on NBCSN in Pittsburgh, Pa. Many questions will be answered by then, hopefully the Penguins will get on top and go up in the series 3-2. You do not want to be down 3-2 in the best of 7 series going back to Amalie Arena. I predict that whoever wins game 5 will advance to the Cup Finals, it better be us.
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