It probably came a later in the series than they wanted, but the Capitals may have planted a seed of doubt in the Penguins and their rookie goaltender Matt Murray with their 3-1 victory on Saturday, forcing the best-of-seven series back to Pittsburgh for Game 6 on Tuesday night.
But is that seed big enough for Penguins coach Mike Sullivan to replace the 21-year-old netminder with 31-year-old veteran Marc-Andre Fleury?
“I really don’t know,” Caps coach Barry Trotz said on Sunday. “I can’t answer that the way you would like me to answer that because I’m not in their room. Whatever goaltender is in, we’re fine with it. It means we must be doing something right if they’re looking to change.”
Murray has been the Penguins’ most pleasant surprise of the post-season with a 6-2 record, 1.96 GAA, .937 save percentage and one shutout. But on Saturday night at Verizon Center Murray surrendered three goals on 19 shots in the Caps’ 3-1 win.
Now, Sulivan is faced with his most difficult, and perhaps most pivotal, decision of the playoffs. Does he turn to Fleury, who has not played since March 31 because of concussion symptoms? Or does he stick with Murray, who has allowed 12 goals in five games against the Capitals after allowing four goals in three games against the New York Rangers?
Sullivan’s not saying.
"The reality is, we're fortunate we have two guys right now, in Matt and Marc that we feel strongly about both goalies and their ability to help us win," Sullivan told reporters on Sunday.
Fleury sat out the final five games of the regular season and the Pwnguins’ first seven playoff games. He began practicing with the team before the start of the second round of the playoffs and has dressed as a backup to Murray in Games 3, 4 and 5.
Fleury has a career playoff record of 53-44 with a 2.65 GAA and .906 save percentage. Last year he allowed 11 goals in a five-game series loss to the Rangers in Round 1. Fleury has not taken the Pens past the second round of the playoffs since Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup in 2009.
"I thought Matt played extremely well (Saturday night), as he has this whole series," Sullivan said. "He made the saves that he was supposed to make for us. He made some timely saves for us. He gave us a chance to climb back into that game.”
Murray said a couple of “missed saves” – he allowed power-play goals to Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie and an even-strength tally to Justin Williams – was the difference in Game 5, on a night Caps netminder Braden Holtby was brilliant in stopping 30 of 31 shots.
“(Murray) has provided the timely saves for us throughout this playoff series,” Sullivan said, “and we feel strongly that he gives us a chance to win when he's the goalie."
If Sullivan starts Murray on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh and the Capitals win to force a Game 7 in Washington on Thursday, things could get even more dicey for the Penguins’ head coach in a must-win scenario.