Who’ll be the Starring Goalie for the Next NHL Final?
With the October face-off date of the 2017-18 NHL season fast approaching, pundits are already predicting a third consecutive Stanley Cup for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens put up a pretty dominant performance all of last season, claiming 50 of 82 matches. But it was during the playoffs they really made their mark, convincingly beating the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-1, claiming the second and third rounds off the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators 4-3 apiece and downing the Nashville Predators 4-2 in the finals.
If they do pull off the 3-cup dream result, they’ll be the first US-based team to claim the glory and, in doing so, join the Montreal Canadians and Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL record books. As with all NHL showdowns, the spotlight is squarely on the goaltenders; the men who stand between rampant attacks from opposing scorers….and victory. With two very capable goalies in the mix – veteran Marc André Fleury and relative newcomer and shutout star, Matt Murray – it’s going to be a fascinating conundrum for coach Mike Sullivan as to who starts and when!
We take a look at the achievements, loss of form and injury woes of the two Canadian-born lefties and leave it up to you to predict whether it will be the wisdom and experience of Fleury, or the exciting raw talent of ‘rookie’ Murray that plays a starring role in the NHL Final in June 2018!
At just 23 years of age, Incumbent Pens goaltender, Matt Murray, is a rapidly rising star. The Thunder Bay-born Canadian has already made a major impact on the record books, becoming the first-ever rookie to win two NHL Stanley Cups. His 322 playoff wins are the best-ever recorded for a rookie, while his starting role as goaltender in the Cup Finals made him only the sixth rookie to achieve the honours in more than 40 years. The road to the NHL was smooth for the young Murray, punctuated by yet more records and recognition by the AHL. He scooped up the Best Goaltender and Best Rookie awards and set the record for the longest-ever shutout streak!
Murray made his NHL Playoff debut in the 2016 season, recording his first big league shutout in the 5-1 series victory over the New York Rangers. Following a serious concussion to his nemesis, Marc André Fleury, an injury that prematurely ended the season for the established goaltender, Murray stepped in and started all the playoff games, bar one, to help the Pens win the first of two back-to-back Stanley Cups.
Injury kept the young pretender sidelined for the start of the 2016-17 season but on his return, Murray quickly displaced Fleury and continued to impress with his formidable form. He ended the regular season in the Top 10 in wins, save percentage and shutouts. During the playoffs he missed out again due to injury, but was back in fighting form to displace Fleury and go on to bag his second Stanley Cup. His 2017 playoff stats are impressive by anyone’s reckoning and read as follows: 22 wins out of 32 games with 63 goals scored at an average of 1.95 per game and with save percentage of .928.
No-one can deny the impact Marc André Fleury has had on the NHL and the professional sport of ice hockey as a whole. The 32 year old French-Canadian has been a stalwart of the Pittsburgh Penguins since he was chosen first overall in the 2003 NHL Draft. His record speaks for itself; three Stanley Cup wins, an Olympic gold medal and a consistent performer at the highest level for almost 15 years is just wow. At 18 years old, Fleury was the youngest-ever goalie in the NHL. Since then he has set records and been honoured by the league and his team on countless occasions. He was the third youngest and third fastest player to record 300 NHL wins and up until he was sidelined following a concussion injury, the man known as ‘Flowers’ was consistently the first choice goalie for his team.
A combination of injury and a lack of form has seen Fleury displaced as starting goalie for the Pittsburgh Pens. However, a quick look at his 2017 playoff stats means there’s still plenty of gas left in the tank; played 15, won 9, with 37 goals against at an average of 2.56 and a save percentage of .924. And, with plenty of experience under his belt and a welcome few months of rest and recuperation to work on body and mind conditioning, only a fool would discount Fleury as the new season’s comeback kid. There’s not too much in the numbers, so the jury is still out on whether it will be Fleury or Murray who is the star studded saver in the final.
Can the Pens do it a third time? According to the stats they can. They won more matches and scored more goals last season, compared to 2016. With the number two ranked scorer of 2017, Scott Crosby, out to better his performance, and two equally hungry goalies intent on claiming the starting berth, the Pittsburgh Penguins have the key players to pull off yet another back-to-back season finale in 2018.