Heaven knows – and despite what some of them would have you believe – you don’t have to be an Einstein to coach in the NHL.
That said, it was Einstein, the dedicated scientist and mathematician, who came to the conclusion that a certain thing that cannot be measured might be the most valuable commodity of all: intuition.
What else explains the hunch played by Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan when he announced Friday morning that Matt Murray would be starting in goal for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final against the Ottawa Senators?
If some were surprised by the announcement, they were just as surprised by the result: a dominating 3-2 victory for the Penguins to tie this best-of-seven series at two games each. Game 5 will be Sunday afternoon back in Pittsburgh.
Was Sullivan interested in sharing his thoughts on the switch or what he might have said to Murray or Marc-André Fleury, the longstanding Pittsburgh goaltender who had started the previous 15 playoff games and won nine of them.
Murray had not played at all until late in period one of Game 3 when, with the Senators up 4-0, Sullivan yanked his veteran goaltender and put in the 22-year-old to finish out what was already a lost cause. Murray played well, allowing one goal in a game that ended 5-1.
Sullivan’s hunch might have had its basis in Murray’s stellar play a year ago when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup. Or perhaps he found it in his coffee grounds. We may never know.
What we do know is that both coaches – Pittsburgh’s Sullivan and Ottawa’s Guy Boucher – have become almost obsessive in talking about the first 10 minutes of a game, almost as though everything beyond that is already decided.
Those critical opening minutes, said Pittsburgh forward Scott Wilson, “dictates the whole game.”
“You always want to have a good start,” Boucher said earlier in the day.
And Murray certainly did. The fans had barely taken their seats when it seemed certain that Senators forward Derick Brassard would put his team in front when a rebound squeaked over to him just to the side of the Pittsburgh net. Brassard shot, Murray flashed – and the puck stayed out.
The Penguins closed out this first period with a goal of their own when big defenceman Olli Maatta took a pass from Sidney Crosby and drifted around checking Ottawa forward Zack Smith before sending what appeared to be an easy wrist shot in the short side on Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson. For Maatta, it was his first goal of the playoffs.
The Senators opened the second period on a power play and, again, Murray was to be tested. Little Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who already has eight playoff goals, found himself all alone in front with the puck and two opportunities to swing at it – all to no avail.
With Murray answering Pittsburgh questions in goal, it was up to the star-studded forwards to start responding with goals. Incredibly, the high-scoring Penguins had scored but a single goal – one of them a winner – in their previous five matches against Ottawa, three in the playoffs and two in the regular season.
That sorry record vanished at the 7:41 mark of the second period when the Penguins were on a power play courtesy of a Pageau roughing penalty on Crosby. Crosby’s revenge was quick: stationed to the side of the Ottawa net, he poked the puck in behind Anderson for his sixth playoff goal.
“It takes five guys” to check Crosby, said Ottawa defender Marc Methot.
Anderson’s night soon turned even worse when an innocent point shot by defenceman Brian Dumoulin clipped off Ottawa defender Dion Phaneuf and in behind Anderson for Dumoulin’s first of the postseason.
Again, Sullivan had been proved prescient. “We’ve got to shoot the puck when we have opportunities,” he had said in the morning.
It wasn’t until the dying minutes of the second period that the Senators finally got a puck past Murray. Ottawa forward Bobby Ryan carried the puck over the Pittsburgh line, curled as one defender fell, and he threw the puck across to the front of Murray’s net, where Clarke MacArthur deftly tipped the puck into the open side for his third of the playoffs.
The Ottawa power play, despite chances, again proved futile, at times so much so that the crowd loudly booed the final moments. Boucher had said it gets tougher and tougher to score on the power play in the playoffs because of the way players defend and sacrifice.
“It’s like there’s five goalies out there,” he said.
Or, by another measure, it’s like there are five skaters without a plan when Ottawa has the man advantage.
The Senators came out charging in the third period, hoping to make up the two-goal disadvantage and at least force overtime, something they have excelled at this spring.
Murray, however, had other ideas. He stopped Mike Hoffman, perhaps Ottawa’s most dangerous shooter, point blank, and point blank again on Tom Pyatt.
Ottawa had a glorious chance to tie the match when Pittsburgh was given a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty in the final minute. With a two-man advantage – Anderson had been pulled for the extra attacker – they could not solve Murray.
Sullivan’s “hunch” was first star of the night.Report Typo/Error