Ron Cook: Mediocre isn’t good enough in Penguins goal
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Is it just me or is Marc-Andre Fleury playing better hockey than Matt Murray?

Hasn’t Fleury been the better goaltender in March?

Is it possible Fleury could surpass Murray as the Penguins’ go-to man as the team heads toward the playoffs?

“Sure,” Mike Sullivan said Sunday night.

This was after Murray gave up five goals in a 6-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers at PPG Paints Arena. It was not one of his better games. It was not one of the Penguins’ better games.

“It’s like any other position. Performance is always the dictator,” Sullivan said. “We’re fortunate that we have two really quality goaltenders. These decisions on a nightly basis are not easy from the coaching staff’s standpoint.”

Murray, who has been Sullivan’s top goaltender since he led the team to the Stanley Cup last season, is making things harder on the coaches because of his inconsistency. His performance against the Flyers came after he had two solid performances in a 2-1 shootout loss at Ottawa and a 3-1 win at Buffalo.

Before that, though, he had allowed at least three goals in four of his previous five starts, prompting him to tell the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey, “I’ve been pretty mediocre the last little bit. I wouldn’t say I’ve been bad, but I’ve been pretty average. Definitely looking to be a little bit better here going forward.”

This is not the time of the season to be mediocre or pretty average.

Fleury has been better since the trade deadline when he wasn’t moved by Jim Rutherford after months of speculation about a deal. He lost to the New York Islanders, 4-3, in a shootout Friday night but made 43 saves. Before that, he pitched a shutout against Florida, lost another shootout to Calgary, 4-3, beat Edmonton, 3-2, with 40 saves and came off the bench against Buffalo at the start of the second period to bail out Murray by stopping all 28 shots that he faced in a 4-3 win.

It seemed pretty clear that Sullivan still believed in Murray when he started him in Buffalo two days after Fleury’s shutout against Florida. But now? I’m guessing Sullivan still is leaning toward Murray. But it will be worth watching how he sets up his goaltender rotation in the final seven regular-season games, beginning Wednesday night with a fascinating home matchup against Chicago.

Murray conceded it’s never good to give up five goals, but didn’t seem overly concerned.

“The puck didn’t bounce our way all night. They had the momentum pretty much the entire game. There were a lot of times they were really swarming in our end zone, especially in the second period. They were in our end zone pretty much the whole period …

“We’re disappointed in our efforts tonight. It’s just one of those games you write off and don’t pay much attention to.”

There were extenuating circumstances Sunday night, as there always seems to be with the Penguins. They lost Conor Sheary to a lower-body injury midway through the first period. Evgeni Malkin, Carl Hagelin and Jake Guentzel already were out of the lineup, as were four top defensemen Kris Letang, Ron Hainsey, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley.

Not that Sullivan wanted to hear any excuses.

“Certainly, we all have to be better,” he said when asked to assess Murray’s performance.

“We have to be better in front of him. That’s a team effort. We are what we are tonight. That’s my observation. We’ve got to play a better game. We’ve got to be more solid. No one is exempt, from the coaching staff on down.”

The playoffs begin in 16 days. It’s not likely the Penguins will catch Washington, who have a three-point lead over them in the Metropolitan Division standings with a game in hand. A more doable challenge is trying to hold off the Columbus Blue Jackets for second place in the division.

The teams are tied with 103 points, although the Blue Jackets have a game in hand. Finishing second would give the Penguins home-ice advantage for a first-round series against Columbus.

Getting Malkin and Letang back sooner rather than later would help tremendously.

So would a little more consistency from Murray.

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