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Mike Harrington: Goaltending decision a tough one for Penguins heading to Game Five

CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- Two games ago, it was borderline ridiculous to think the Nashville Predators had a goaltending quandary. As the Stanley Cup final heads to Game Five Thursday in PPG Paints Arena, it's not so far-fetched to think the Pittsburgh Penguins have exactly that.

Murray or Fleury? Fleury or Murray?

Coach Mike Sullivan doesn't tip any hands until gameday, but he's done nothing to cut off the talk either. A standout as the Penguins won the first two games of this series, Matt Murray struck several off notes in the Music City and was positively ordinary as the Predators came back to even things at two wins apiece.

Marc-Andre Fleury lost his net midway through the Eastern Conference final against Ottawa after leading the Penguins through the first two rounds -- including a Game Seven shutout against Washington. It's reasonable the Penguins are at least thinking of making him a starter in the final for the first time since he made the last-second save off Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom to win Game Seven in 2009 for Dan Bylsma's Penguins in Joe Louis Arena.

Murray stopped 60 of 64 shots in the first two games but sank to a 4.03 goals-against average and .862 save percentage in the two games at Bridgestone Arena. Nashville's Pekka Rinne had similar home success (1.01/.962) and road failure (4.71/.778) in this series but there was little chance the Predators were replacing their longest-running player with rookie Juuse Saros in the first home Cup final game in their history.

Pekka Rinne, Nashville
Games              GA/SA        GAA Sv%
Games 1-2         8/36          4.71 .778
Games 3-4         2/52         1.01 .962
Totals               10/87         2.71 .886

Matt Murray, Pittsburgh
Games     GA/SA    GAA Sv%
1-2            4/64      2.02 .938
3-4             8/58       4.03 .862
Totals        12/122    3.03 .902

Murray, on the other hand, had to show up at practice Wednesday wondering. These types of series are tough on goalies. Fans and media don't obsess about, say, who is playing left wing on the third line. The goaltending, of course, is a huge focus for scrutiny. Murray said he refuses to let himself be drawn into such debates.

Besides, he's used to it. The Murray-Fleury question has been going on all season in the wake of Murray's Stanley Cup win last June and the likelihood that Fleury will be exposed in the expansion draft or perhaps traded.

"It's not really something I think about at all, to be honest," Murray, 23, said after practice in the Lemieux Sports Complex. "What people are going to say is what they're going to say and I have no control over that. I have no control over who the coach decides to play so it's really not something that takes up any part of my mind."

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For the postseason, Murray is 5-3 with a 2.08 goals-against average, .925 save percentage and one shutout. Fleury is 9-6, 2.56, .924 with two shutouts. It was going to be Murray's net, remember, until he was injured during the warmup prior to the playoff opener against Columbus. Fleury won that series in five games, survived the marathon against the Caps and got the Pens their first win in the Eastern Conference final against Ottawa before getting the hook during a blitzing by the Senators in Game Three.

The Predators had been stymied by Murray for more than 72 minutes until Roman Josi broke through at 5:51 of the second period in Game Three. That started a stretch of 67 minutes over the two games where Murray gave up eight goals. Yikes.

This is a total 50-50 call for Sullivan. It will, to paraphrase Nasvhille's zany fans, be all Sullivan's fault if the Penguins lose Game Five, no matter who is in goal.

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Murray understood he wasn't very good in Game Three and said he felt much better in Game Four but failing to stop Viktor Arvidsson on the breakaway that put the Preds up, 3-1, was a key play.

"I honestly felt really sharp, my movements were good and I was finding pucks through traffic pretty well," he said. "I think if I make a save on that breakaway then it's a different game. All in all, I thought I played pretty well."

While there weren't any complete flops like Rinne had in the first two games, Murray didn't give his team the big save when it could have used one. And his glove hand has sprung a leak, with the Predators clearly going for that spot of the net and finding success.

"I work on everything. I work on my entire game," Murray said with some defiance. "If they want to shoot glove, then I say, 'Go ahead. Shoot glove.'"

It's well known that Fleury was not happy with the fact Sullivan pulled him from the cage following one bad start after all he had done for the team this spring -- and since he was drafted No. 1 overall way back in 2003. If Fleury goes back in goal, this could be quite a last ride for him with the Penguins at age 32.

"Like all year. It's nothing new for us," Fleury said. "We just encourage each other when the other one plays. It's out of my hands. I just have to stay ready with practices. If they need me, I'll be there."

Since Game Four, Sullivan has only said "We haven't lost games because of our goaltending. That's my thought."

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Murray said goalies have to compartmentalize everything around them at this time of year. And that means listening to no one outside their locker room.

"It's really important and for anybody, not just goalies," he said. "Especially this time of year, there's a lot of noise and a lot of distractions. It's just about not letting it get to you and pretending like it doesn't exist."

Asked directly if he had been given any indication if he is starting in Game Five, Murray said he had no idea but was at least able to crack a smile with reporters.

"And even if I did," Murray said, "I'm not telling you."

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