The smile on Matt Murray’s face spoke volumes after the Penguins’ 4-3, overtime win over the Los Angeles Kings Saturday night.
“Feels good,” said the two-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender who, at age 24, has been struggling through the toughest season of his young career. He’s missed the past month with a lower-body injury and, before that, limped to a 4-5-1 record in 11 starts, with a 4.08 GAA and .877 save percentage.
“After coming back from injury like that, it definitely gets the butterflies going. I don’t know how long it’s been, but feels like forever since I last played. But I just had a blast, and it was just a lot of fun being out there.”
Murray might forgive Penguins fans if they weren’t exactly feeling the fun when Alex Iafallo beat him on the power play to lift the Kings all the way back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the contest late in the third. It was the second time in as many nights that Pittsburgh had blown 3-1 leads.
— LA Kings (@LAKings) December 16, 2018
But the Penguins came back from that situation to beat the Boston Bruins, 5-3, the night before, and Murray was up to the challenge in overtime versus the Kings.
Was he ever.
From denying Tyler Toffoli on a clean break with the game on his stick, to three more game-saving OT stops, Murray gave his Penguins the chance to turn up the pressure in the extra frame.
“I think if you’re able to make a save in overtime, it can be a big momentum swinger,” Murray said. “Obviously you see how much open ice there is and everybody’s trying to score. I think it’s important to try my best to make that save and try to help our guys go the other way.”
That’s exactly what happened as Los Angeles’ Brendan Leipsic took a frustration penalty, with a slash on Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. With the 4-on-3 opportunity, Crosby won the faceoff and handed it over to his team, who tic-tac-toed the puck around the zone until Phil Kessel had the winning shot on the Kings’ Jonathan Quick.
— Hockey Daily (@HockeyDaily365) December 16, 2018
And, just like that, Iafallo’s goal mattered a little less, and Murray could break into that smile that was, perhaps, missing for the first part of this season.
“Maybe a little bit, yeah,” he admitted. “It’s important; you’ve got to have fun out there, too, you know? It kind of helps you loosen up, maybe. Playing in a really tight game like that, a lot of chances, that’s a lot of fun. Especially that overtime, going back and forth like that. It’s pretty nerve-wracking, but it’s fun at the same time.”
The Kings did their best to make sure Murray was having lots of, um, fun, early in the contest, with 15 shots in the first 20 minutes against a goaltender they figured was rusty in his first action since Nov. 17.
“They were throwing a lot of pucks on net, I felt, early in the first,” Murray said. “I think they had 12 or 13 shots in the first eight or nine minutes. I think that was part of their game was just to kind of throw pucks from everywhere, so I had to be careful with rebounds. And the team, especially the D, did a really good job of boxing out and limiting those second opportunities, because those are the ones that hurt you.”
The Penguins were happy to help out their netminder that way – even if, with 41 shots allowed (and 51 the night before), their defensive conscience still needs some work overall.
“It was really good to see him play to his level and the confidence he showed, and obviously some monster stops in overtime,” said forward Matt Cullen, who contributed a shorthanded goal to open the scoring. “Really happy for him, and it’s a big one for us.”
“I thought Matt was really good,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “For the first game back after as long as he’s been out, I thought he was really sharp. I thought he got better as the game went on. Obviously we give up a couple of breakaways in the overtime; those are huge saves for us.”
Although Murray getting back to his calming, stabilizing presence in goal would be a big part of helping Pittsburgh stabilize their own playoff position – they’re back in third place in the Metro – they have work to do if they want to win more consistently.
The Penguins lucked out when star defenseman Kris Letang, hit by a puck and unable to put weight on his leg Friday, was pronounced day-to-day instead of something longer-term, but giving up 92 shots and turning the puck over 18 times over two nights isn’t a winning recipe.
“I think good teams find ways to win when they’re not at their best, and then I also think we have to be better in order to get consistent results,” Sullivan said. “When you look at the last couple of games, we’ve gotten some wins, but I don’t think we were as difficult to play against. I think we’ve got to make more of a concerted effort to play away from the puck and defend and I think if we do that, then I think we’ll get the consistent results; I think we’ll have the puck more.”
“I think our team has always shown an ability to score goals. We have to be better at playing away from the puck and being more difficult to play against. It starts with our own puck management and making sure we don’t turn the puck over when we’re late in shifts, or at the wrong areas of the rink. Situational play is something we talk about a lot, that we show on the film, that we’re trying to learn through our experiences. But we’ve got to start to heed the lessons if we’re going to become the team we want to become.”