The Fleury Mistake Could Still Come Back to Haunt Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan

Mike Sullivan redeemed himself by going back to Matt Murray in Game 6. But the decision to start Marc-Andre Fleury in a Game 5 loss may hang over him like a dark cloud.

by Dave Lozo
May 25 2016, 5:48pm

Photo by Don Wright-USA TODAY Sports

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

Everyone makes mistakes.

Mike Sullivan made an egregious one when he allowed Marc-Andre Fleury to start Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.

You know the guy in the great long-term relationship that still weirdly brings up an ex-girlfriend more than he should? Then one day he messages the ex on Facebook, meets her for coffee and just when he's ready to throw away everything he's built with his current girlfriend, the ex mentions she gave $2,000 to the Donald Trump campaign and he can't delete the Facebook messages fast enough.

That's Sullivan over the past few days.

The 21-year-old Matt Murray had been a rock for three rounds. He allowed four goals in Game 4 but they were hardly soft ones. This was a guy who outplayed Henrik Lundqvist and Braden Holtby during the first two rounds and had shown enough mettle to earn his coach's trust.

READ MORE: Phil Kessel's Redemption, and the Rise of Backup Goalies

Republican hopefuls Ted Cruz and John Kasich had yet to end their presidential campaigns when Fleury made his last start on March 31. Murray had a .923 save percentage through two-plus rounds; Fleury hadn't exceeded that mark during a two-round run since 2008.

TFW you get name dropped in a VICE Sports piece. –Photo by Craig Rubadoux/Florida Today via USA TODAY NETWORK

In Game 5, Fleury looked every bit like a goaltender that made his last start before baseball season began. He allowed a bad first goal, a dubious third goal and the Penguins lost 4-3 in overtime. The Lightning took a 3-2 series lead and returned to Tampa with a chance to jam a knife into Sullivan's already wounded heart.

Sullivan could have been stubborn and talked himself into going with the veteran in an elimination game. Did you see everyone jumping around with Fleury during warmups before Game 5? Fleury's teammates love him like a toll booth operator loves exact change and some coaches worry about upsetting the locker room by benching a favorite.

Instead, Sullivan made like Scott Bakula on an episode of Quantum Leap and corrected his mistake that may have changed history.

"At this particular point in the season," Sullivan said the morning of Game 6, "we don't have the luxury of allowing players to play through things. We have to win a game. We have to win a hockey game. And that's how we looked at it."

It was dicey in the final minutes, but Murray made 28 saves as the Penguins staved off elimination with a 5-2 win against the Lightning in Game 6.

Matt Murray, the man who should have started Game 5. –Photo by Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

"He doesn't get rattled," Sullivan said afterward. "If he lets a goal in, he just continues to compete. That's usually an attribute that takes years to acquire, and to have it at such a young age is impressive. That's always impressed us about him. Certainly, it's impressed me since I've got to know him and watch him as a goaltender but also as a person."

This shouldn't be taken as an indictment of Fleury; if he were healthy at the start of the playoffs, the Penguins are very likely in the same exact spot. The Penguins entered the playoffs as the league's hottest, most-dominant 5-on-5 team and it has bled into their 17 postseason games.

That's why the goaltending switch never should have been made and why it still could be the reason this series is won by the Lightning.

The Penguins' score-adjusted Fenwick is 55.1 percent in the playoffs, according to War on Ice. They are steamrolling teams and were speed-bagging the Lightning when Sullivan decided to switch goaltenders after Tampa's lone good game in the series. When you're crushing teams at 5-on-5, you don't need a goaltender like Lundqvist to steal games; you need a goaltender to simply not blow them.

This is usually the space reserved for pointing out how Fleury is The Lord of the Bad Postseason Goal but Sullivan put him in a position to fail. After two months without a start because of a concussion and coming in cold against a highly-skilled team that tends to make the most of what little chances it receives, Fleury allowing one or two bad goals was more destiny than sad occurrence.

It's impossible to know for sure that the Penguins would have won Game 5 if Murray had started, but it's an absolute fact that the Penguins would have won Game 5 if Murray had started.

Sullivan didn't lean on the notion that Fleury would bounce back or the fact he has won a Stanley Cup. Instead, he did the novel thing and started the better goaltender at the moment and maybe for years to come.

The Fleury Mistake may come back to bite Sullivan in the ass. –Photo by Don Wright-USA TODAY Sports

Now it all comes down to a Game 7 in Pittsburgh against a team that won Game 7 of the conference finals at Madison Square Garden a year ago. The Penguins had the Lightning at the mercy of math over a long series before switching goaltenders for Game 5; now they are more susceptible to one outstanding game from Andrei Vasilevskiy or one lucky bounce.

Imagine the city of Pittsburgh after a 2-1 Lightning win that features 42 saves from Vasilevskiy and a winning goal off the skate of Ian Cole.

How many Penguins fans will spend the summer wondering about Game 5 instead of Game 7?

On the bright side for the scientific community, thousands of Pittsburgh natives will spend the offseason collaborating on a machine that allows us to travel through time and witness occurrences in parallel universes if Tampa wins Game 7. There will be a cavalcade of Yinzers squeezing tree roots in an attempt to warg into Brian Dumoulin so they can attempt to alter the past only to stand helplessly and watch Fleury lie on the ice and mutter, "BACK DOOR, BACK DOOR, BACK DOOR," after Nikita Kucherov's tying goal late in Game 5.

Sullivan changed his mind in the nick of time. Unlike St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, he didn't need to see a second poor showing from the second-best goaltender on his roster to admit he screwed up.

Will it be the difference between winning a Stanley Cup and losing in the third round?

Only time will tell.