Murray Taking Reins as Penguins’ No. 1 Netminder

by | Jan 24, 2017

Last Monday, the Penguins, losers of three straight, limped into their matchup with the Washington Capitals, owners of a nine-game winning streak.

Pittsburgh was playing uninspired hockey, relying on bursts of offense instead of sticking to their system. They’d surrendered an average of five goals in each of the three defeats and just lost their most important defenseman, Kris Letang, to a week-to-week injury.

It seemed like an inauspicious time to host the high-flying Capitals. And when Washington jumped out to a quick, 3-0 lead in the first 21:17 of the contest, it looked like Pittsburgh was in for yet another very long night.

That’s when Evgeni Malkin, who was vocal about his belief in the team after their third loss two nights earlier, took it upon himself to step up and key a Penguins comeback. After a wild contest that featured 15 goals, including a Malkin hat trick, Pittsburgh came out on top with an 8-7 win.

“It’s maybe a little bit [of a] fun game – fun for forwards but not goalie,” Malkin said. “We have a slow start; it’s not our game. Seven goals is too much. We still need to work to play D zone better, [eliminate] bad penalties like me [getting] frustrated, and just do the right things. Play the right game.

“We’re not perfect today, but it’s two points. I think it’s helped us for the next game; we feel a little bit better right now.”

Speaking of goalies who weren’t having much fun, the Capitals’ Braden Holtby came out of the game after five goals against. But Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan played a hunch in keeping his starting netminder, Matt Murray, in for all seven.

“We like Matt’s fight,” Sullivan said. “Some of the goals, he probably didn’t get puck luck; I think some of the goals, if you asked him, he’d like to have back. It was more of a gut feeling on my part to stay with him. It’s hard to take him [out] when you’re playing with a lead so, when we climbed back into that game, I’ve seen Matt in the past respond. He has a pretty good history of that.”

Two days later, the Penguins headed to Montreal, not far from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s small hometown of Sorel-Tracy, Quebec. In Fleury’s 12-plus seasons with the franchise, he’s typically gotten the nod against the Canadiens when healthy, and he’s been successful. In 16 career starts at Montreal, Fleury has gone 9-5 with a 2.76 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.

Not this time. Sullivan went with his gut again.

“Matt’s had a history of responding pretty well to those types of games,” Sullivan reiterated, “and he’s also a guy who hasn’t played a lot of games coming off his last injury. So we feel with another game here, he’s going to get that much more comfortable with the decisions he makes and finding the puck and tracking the puck. I think the only way as a goaltender you can get that is in game situations.”

Sullivan’s hunch paid off as Murray backstopped the Penguins a 4-1 win at Centre Bell on Wednesday. He then went on to stifle the Carolina Hurricanes, making 27 saves in a 7-1 rout at Raleigh on Friday, then returned home, where he’s unbeaten in his past 15 (13-0-2) dating back to last season, to post a career-high 44 saves in a 5-1 win over Boston on Sunday.

That included 21 stops in a 22-shot second period for the Bruins, the most the Penguins have allowed in a single frame this year.

“I don’t think that second period was our best by any means, but we got some timely saves,” Sullivan said. “I thought Muzz was really strong tonight; he was our best penalty killer for sure. When you get goaltending like that, it certainly helps you win.”

Since that career-worst night against Washington a week ago, Murray has justified Sullivan’s faith by stopping 90 of 93 shots, good for a 1.00 goals-against average and .968 save percentage. And he still thinks he can find another level.

“You’re never really where you want to be; you’re always looking to improve,” Murray said. “Obviously I wasn’t as good for a couple games there, but for three games now I’ve been a little bit happier with how I’ve played. And the team’s done quite the job also of making my job fairly easy.”

The writing has been on the wall for some time that the 22-year-old Murray is the Penguins’ future in goal, and his Stanley Cup run last spring only solidified the organization’s hopes for him. But it looks increasingly like Murray has become Pittsburgh No. 1 netminder right now, as opposed to the more alternating – 1A and 1B, if you will – roles he and Fleury played in the early part of the season.

With Murray getting a big salary bump from $628,333 to $3.75M next year – the first of a new, three-year deal – chances are slim that he and Fleury, 10 years his senior with two years left at $5.75M, will start the 2017-18 season on the same roster.

Time will tell if the Penguins send Fleury, a much-loved teammate and still a highly capable netminder, elsewhere for a chance to reclaim a starting job before the end of the season. For now, though, Sullivan is likely to keep riding his hunch on the young netminder who’s helped to turn Pittsburgh’s three-game losing streak into a four-game winning streak.

“We’ve got a resilient group, and they know they’re capable of coming back in games when they get down by multiple goals,” Sullivan said after the 8-7 win that reversed the Penguins’ course. “We love that about this group – the compete level, the competitive spirit, the never say die. Just the stick-to-itiveness is something we really admire about our guys.”

For the Penguins right now, that confidence starts in their net.

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