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Did Penguins’ Mike Sullivan outsmart himself?

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The Pittsburgh Penguins trailed the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 entering the third period of Game 4 of their Eastern Conference Finals series on Friday. Rookie goaltender Matt Murray was experiencing a rarity in his young career: allowing more than three goals.

In his 12 regular season starts, of which the Penguins won nine, he never allowed more than three. He won nine of his first 12 playoff starts, allowing four goals only once; against the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals.

When the Lightning scored four on 30 shots through two periods, Penguins’ Coach Mike Sullivan inserted veteran Marc-Andre Fleury for the third period. Fleury put his finger in the dyke for the third period, but the Lightning hung on for a 4-3 win to even the series at two games apiece.

Yes, it’s nice to have a Stanley Cup-winning goalie (Fleury and Pens won in 2009) in reserve, but it was obvious Sullivan was getting Fleury some game action to be prepared for a Game 5 start. Perhaps encouraged by the Penguins’ resurgent third period in front of Fleury, Sullivan made the call to start the veteran on Sunday.

Although he will never admit it, Sullivan appears to have made a series-changing mistake. Despite Murray’s .750 winning percentage in the playoffs, Sullivan put him on the bench.

Yes, Murray gave up the four goals, but it must be remembered the Lightning had 30 shots on goal in two periods. In other words, the rookie was taking an above average amount of incoming fire. Any team that allows that many shots in two periods is likely getting outplayed all over the ice, not just the goaltender.

Out went Murray and in came Fleury for Game 5. The Penguins skated at a furious pace to start the game. More than halfway through, Pittsburgh led 2-0.

When the second period ended, the Penguins’ lead was only 3-2. Tampa Bay’s game-tying and game-winning goals were tallied on 12 shots.

Fleury had not played an entire game in nearly two months, and it showed as he faltered at the end. Though the Lightning had 25 shots on goal, all four goals were scored on their last 11.

Could Murray have done better? While that is no guarantee, his body of work shows a bounce-back ability. After giving up the four goals in the series opener against Washington, Murray and the Penguins bounced back to take the series in six games.

Sullivan, who took over the team one-third of the way into the season, bet on emotion and experience. He lost with a rusty goaltender unable to make the necessary stops against a talented and determined Lightning team.

On Tuesday Murray will return to the goal crease as the starter for Game 6 at Amalie Arena. Should the Lightning go on to win, analysts will look back on the pivotal Game 5.

“It’s an imperfect situation,” said Sullivan. “So, all things considered, we’re trying to make the best decisions we can, that we think will give the team the best chance to win, and that’s what we do, that’s what we go with.”

Whether there was too much thought, or too little, that went into the decision to put Murray on the bench for Game 5, it was the wrong decision.

And the Lightning happily took full advantage of the situation.

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Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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