A goalie controversy of historic proportions is set to erupt as the final 15 games of the Penguins' regular season play out. At stake is nothing less than a chance to win the Stanley Cup.
Who does coach Michel Therrien go with for the majority of the remaining games? Which of his two goalies does he prime for the playoffs?
Is it Marc-Andre Fleury, who was in goal yesterday in a 3-2 shootout win against the Atlanta Thrashers at Mellon Arena, which was his first NHL start since Dec. 6? Or is it Ty Conklin, who replaced the injured Fleury and went on to play well beyond anyone's expectations?
Under normal circumstances, Conklin's play should have been enough to make him the regular for the remainder of the season and the playoffs. After all, the case easily could be made he is the team's most valuable player. Conklin has been consistently good, often excellent. Just last week, he had a 50-save game in a 4-2 win against the New York Islanders. His goals-against average of 2.37 is almost half-a-goal lower than Fleury's. His save percentage of .927 is the best in the NHL.
But these are not normal circumstances.
For starters, Conklin has no pedigree. He is the quintessential journeyman. Although he'll be 32 at the end of the month, his career consists of 105 NHL games. He never previously gave any indication he could get a team to the playoffs, let alone win a series or two or three or four. His only postseason experience was five minutes for Edmonton in 2006. His goals-against average for that brief stint was 10.
For seconds, Conklin's play has declined ever so slightly in recent games. Considering the high level at which he was playing, that was to be expected. But, at the same time, this decline creates the concern -- or is it fear -- that he's in the early stage of a return to his previous mediocre form.
At Boston Thursday, Conklin had to be pulled early in the second period in favor of Fleury after allowing three goals on 13 shots. Against Ottawa Saturday, he allowed five goals.
It's natural that any sign of deterioration by Conklin will cause alarm. When there is no history to support current accomplishments, suspicion always lingers.
For thirds, there's Fleury. He was the first player selected in the 2003 entry draft and long has been tagged as a potential superstar. The Penguins took Fleury with the hope he'd become the kind of franchise goaltender who could win a Stanley Cup. He has not shown that form, neither in the NHL nor in his minor-league days, but he's only 23, and the hope still exists.
If the Penguins are intent on making a long run in the playoffs -- and by acquiring Marian Hossa last week that clearly is their hope -- they would more likely want to do it with a goalie whose resume is shinier than Conklin's.
Fleury, not unexpectedly, started slowly against the Thrashers, who accommodated by not getting a shot for the first five minutes. The Penguins did not start slowly, taking a 2-0 lead before the game was three minutes old. But Fleury allowed the Thrashers to get back in it by allowing a bad goal by Jim Slater later in the first period.
"I was a little nervous at the start," he said.
He settled down considerably after that, allowing only a score on a rebound early in the third period and finished with 31 saves.
"I was a little rusty," Fleury said, "but I felt better as the game went on."
Therrien seemed pleased. "I thought he was solid. That's a good sign for him and for us as well."
Therrien was even happier with the shootout, where Fleury stopped all three Atlanta attempts, including one by former Penguin Erik Christensen.
"Marc-Andre was outstanding [in the shootout]," he said.
Therrien was asked if Fleury earned a start tomorrow night at Tampa Bay.
"We'll talk about it," he said. "I'm going to sit down with the staff and watch the game and we'll make a decision."
In further comments, Therrien seemed to be leaning toward Fleury.
"We have to make sure we keep everyone sharp," he said. "Ty has given us some good hockey. He's one of the reason's we're in first place. But, in the meantime, I think yesterday [against Ottawa] he could have played better.
"Marc-Andre is playing well. It's always been the philosophy to go with the performance and the hot hand. If a guy is playing well, you got to use him."
Too much should not be made of which goalie starts tomorrow. With 15 games to go, Therrien has the opportunity to give both goalies long looks. But not too long. He wants one primed for the playoffs.
It's a momentous decision. The season could ride on it. So could a championship.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .