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Goalie debate far from over for Penguins

Sullivan could opt for Murray in goal after Fleury struggles in Game 5 loss to Lightning

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Marc-Andre Fleury sat in his locker stall after finishing his postgame media obligation, pads still strapped to his legs, head tilted down, eyes gazing at the floor, the fingers on his right hand picking at the hair on his chin.

If someone had taken a picture of this exact moment and turned it into a portrait, the title could have been "Thinking Man." Since it was Fleury on this night, minutes after this loss, the more apropos title would have been "Distressed Man."

Fleury, the Pittsburgh Penguins' typically excited and loveable long-time No. 1 goalie, got the start he wanted and so many thought he deserved in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final. It ended with emotional pain, maybe regret, and the reality that Pittsburgh's goalie debate is not over.

Fleury could have ended it Sunday, but was too rusty and simply not good enough in a 4-3 overtime loss against the Tampa Bay Lightning that put the Penguins on the brink of elimination, down 3-2 in the best-of-7 series heading into Game 6 at Amalie Arena on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

"It was nice to get a full game in, but I wish it would have been a different outcome," Fleury said following his 21-save performance. "It's very disappointing."

Video: See what Fleury had to say to the media

This was Fleury's first start since March 31. It was the first time coach Mike Sullivan put 21-year-old rookie goalie Matt Murray on the bench for a full game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He started 13 consecutive games since coming back healthy in Game 3 of the first round against the New York Rangers.

Now it looks like the wrong decision.

"It wasn't the best I've felt in a game," Fleury said.

It showed.

Now, after watching Fleury get a full game in, Sullivan, who seemed secure and confident in his decision to start him, even sparing the media suspense by opening his pregame press conference with the announcement, has to be wondering what he should do for Game 6.

Is he confident enough in Fleury to go back to him? Is Fleury confident enough in himself to deliver? Can he go back to Murray after putting him on the bench?

Video: See what Sullivan had to say to the media

Sullivan might even be privately second-guessing himself for starting Fleury in Game 5. Even though Murray had an .892 save percentage in his previous six starts, the Penguins were still in a good position, tied 2-2 in the series and going home. They didn't have to make the change.

Sullivan won't admit to second-guessing himself now. That would be a sign of weakness at a time when his players need him to show strength. But when asked to assess Fleury's performance and if he is secure with him as the starter for Game 6, Sullivan opted to wait and let his opinion marinate.

"I'm not going to assess his game right after the game," Sullivan said. "It's obviously a disheartening game we just lost. I'd rather digest it a little bit before I jump to any conclusions."

There is a lot to digest. It wasn't all bad, but that's what will be remembered because that's what matters.

The final dagger came when Lightning defenseman Jason Garrison's shot hit off of center Tyler Johnson and went into the net 53 seconds into overtime. Fleury is arguably blameless on that one; he wasn't on the first three.

Video: TBL@PIT, Gm5: Johnson gives Lightning the series lead

Fleury couldn't protect a 2-0 lead in the second period and allowed the Lightning to tie it with two goals in a 70-second span.

Alex Killorn's shot from the left circle, near the wall, beat Fleury over his right shoulder and into the near side at 13:15 of the second period to cut the Penguins lead to 2-1. Fleury went down to his knees and got beaten high. He struggled to shake that one off.

"I've been practicing a lot, I should be better, especially on that first goal," Fleury said. "You know, that was stupid."

Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov tied it at 2-2 on a one-timer from the slot at 14:25. Fleury was out too far in an attempt to challenge Vladislav Namestnikov, who slid the puck to Kucherov for the easy one-timer. Fleury didn't get any help from defenseman Kris Letang either.

Fleury also couldn't protect a 3-2 lead in the third period. He looked uncomfortable on some saves and needed help from the post, too. He was looking behind him often and struggling to hold onto the puck at times.

Video: TBL@PIT, Gm5: Kucherov tallies two goals in Game 5

He was finally beaten by Kucherov on a wraparound at 16:44. Fleury was slow in recovering to get across the crease after making an initial save on Johnson at the left post.

That one came after Fleury barely got a piece of Ryan Callahan's shot from the left circle, which grazed off of his shoulder, hit the right post and slid back across the goal line before trickling out.

"We saw he was struggling a little," Kucherov said. "At that point of the game, you're just trying to put the puck on the net and get some chances."

Fleury nearly gave up the winner before overtime when he lost the handle on Callahan's slap shot from the right circle and needed defenseman Olli Maatta to clear it off the goal line before the whistle blew with 1:01 remaining in the third period.

He had the intermission before overtime to get his equilibrium back, but that didn't matter. Garrison's shot hit off Johnson and went into the net, ending a tough night for a loveable long-time No. 1 who might have been guilty of being too rusty to start such a big game.

Now Sullivan has a travel day Monday to figure out what he is going to do.

The Murray-Fleury debate isn't over. It might be Tuesday if Sullivan makes the wrong call.

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