Before the Penguins started to find their identity – and their offense – it was Marc-Andre Fleury who kept their season afloat.
Friday, with his team coming off a 12-4 March and surging toward the postseason in a way that’s starting to draw parallels to their 2009 Stanley Cup run, Fleury woke up not feeling well. It might have been April Fool’s Day, but the diagnosis was no joke – Fleury had suffered his second concussion of the season Thursday in the Penguins’ 5-2 win over Nashville, likely when a shot from former teammate James Neal broke his mask.
With a week to go in the regular season and 11 days until the puck drops on the playoffs, the Penguins’ starting netminder is out indefinitely. He’ll be evaluated further and the Penguins expect an update on his condition Monday – but, right now, 21-year-old Matt Murray is Pittsburgh’s guy.
If that news made Penguins fans nervous, the always-cool Murray wasn’t sharing their trepidation.
“Not really, no,” Murray said. “I’ve been in this situation before, so I know what I have to do. I just have to come in and be myself and play the way I can play.”
Murray started four games in his first NHL call-up in December, while Fleury was recovering from his previous concussion. The young netminder went 2-1-1 in those contests, never allowing more than two goals and living up to the reputation he built in his record-setting, award-winning AHL season last year.
Saturday, taking the reins from Fleury and facing a quality New York Islanders team with the chance to clinch a playoff spot on the line, could’ve been a high-pressure situation if Murray let it. Instead, all he did was post his first NHL shutout.
“It’s a good feeling for sure,” he said, after the Penguins got goals from five different players – including rookie Oskar Sundqvist with his first – in a 5-0 romp over the Isles. “It’s a milestone, obviously, and something you think about. But I think, in the grand scheme of things, the win is more important than the shutout. It’s just really nice to get a win.”
The win ensured that, for the 10th consecutive season, the Pittsburgh Penguins would have the opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup. And, if they have to do any portion of that without Fleury, his backup says he’s ready.
“No reservations at all,” Murray said. “That’s what you want as a goalie; you want to be the go-to guy. Personally, I really don’t like sitting on the bench, especially for long periods of time, kind of like I have been lately. So, this is a great opportunity for me. I’m very excited about it.”
He has his coach’s confidence, something that became obvious shortly after the NHL trading deadline when Murray was recalled for good and former backup Jeff Zatkoff became the Penguins’ No. 3.
“He was solid [Saturday]. We expected him to be; he’s a good goalie,” said head coach Mike Sullivan, a midseason AHL promotion himself who coached Murray in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to start the year.
“He’s got a calm demeanor, a quiet confidence about him. One of the reasons he’s here is because we knew he could help us win.”
“He’s really poised in there,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “He’s a big guy [at 6-foot-4], and he’s calm in there. There’s not a lot of second chances; he usually gobbles it up or deflects it to the corner. He’s definitely shown a lot of poise for this being his first year.”
The Penguins’ offense, on the other hand, has been explosive, scoring five goals in each of their past three games. They’re taking their speed and skill to opponents, scoring more goals (159) than any team in the league since Sullivan took over.
That’s mostly because the opposition isn’t spending much time with the puck. Since Sullivan’s hire, the Penguins are the No. 2 puck-possession team in the league (55.62 percent), trailing only the L.A. Kings. And sticking to that game, regardless of what the opposition tries to dictate, is paying off.
“I think our game’s more consistent,” Crosby said. “I feel like we’re just sticking with the way we play, regardless of who it’s against. We’re not trying to cheat for offense; we’re playing good in our own zone, and that’s giving us the chance to create offense.
“There’s always times when you know [achieving a playoff spot] is going to be an uphill climb. I don’t think anyone expected to put as many together as we have here down the stretch, but we’ve worked hard, we’ve earned it, and we need to continue to play the same way. It’s gotten us success to this point.”
Murray is ready to contribute to that cause. Now with nine NHL games under his belt, he’s 6-2-1 with a .933 save percentage and 1.86 GAA.
“I haven’t really stopped to think much,” he said. “Just trying to take it one day at a time. That’s the progression of this league; you try to develop in the minors and eventually prove yourself and try to make it to this level.
“That’s what I’m trying to do, and I need to continue to prove that I belong.”