On a mission
Matt Murray's last five games:
Feb. 25 vs. Flyers: Stopped 36/38 shots, .947 save percentage
Feb. 21 at Hurricanes: 29/30, .967
Feb. 19 vs. Red Wings: 19/23, .826
Feb. 17 at Blue Jackets: 37/39, .949
Feb. 14 vs. Canucks: 29/29, 1.000
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Updated 13 hours ago
Hours after he led the Penguins down a runway equipped with pyrotechnics and stepped onto an outdoor rink in front of more than 67,000 fans at Heinz Field Saturday night, goaltender Matt Murray confirmed the circus-like pomp cracked his stoicism if only for a few seconds.
“A little bit, yeah,” he said. “You try and treat it like just another hockey game, but in reality it's a lot bigger stage. It was my first outdoor game, so definitely felt a little bit more energy coming out of that tunnel.”
As he turned away 36 shots in the Penguins' 4-2 win over Philadelphia in the Stadium Series matchup, Murray reaffirmed the narrative that took shape during the 2016 Stanley Cup run: There's a whole lot of mettle and moxie in the 22-year-old netminder.
With the Stadium Series game over, the Penguins no longer need to fret about irregular schedules and promotional photo shoots. What they need and want most as they brace for a Metropolitan Division standings battle that will almost surely go down to the wire Murray provides in bunches. That's why there's no longer a two-starter goalie situation for the Penguins and why curiosity lingers about whether Marc-Andre Fleury will stay with the organization past Wednesday's 3 p.m. trade deadline.
No one denies Fleury's contributions to the team as a source of energy and enthusiasm. No one suggests Murray will seize that role for himself. Fireworks and concerts at intermission barely brought the 22-year-old out of his stern shell. The tension of tight, playoff-like competition in March and April probably puts him in his preferred environment.
“I don't know that he ever shows a youthful exuberance,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “Matt is a kind of a guy that just goes about his business. He doesn't say a whole lot. He just does his job. … I think that allows him to sustain an element of consistency to his game. He doesn't seem to get rattled by any sort of discrepancy in his play. He just tends to react the right way.”
Eyebrows raised when Murray insisted the seven goals he allowed against Washington on Jan. 16 didn't reflect an embarassingly poor performance. The Penguins responded to that reaction by putting Murray in net two nights later in Montreal.
Murray's .950 save percentage in the 4-1 win over the Canadiens marked the start of a particularly strong run for the 22-year-old. Including that start, Murray finished with a save percentage at or above .930 in 10 of his last 14 appearances.
An even deeper dig into the goalie's numbers sheds more light on the steady and superb nature of Murray's play. Since Jan. 12, when Murray returned from a lower-body injury, he has a .942 save percentage in five-on-five action during 16 game appearances, according to Corsica.hockey. Only Anaheim's John Gibson (.944 five-on-five save percentage) has handled a workload comparable to Murray's and performed better during that timespan.
In his 19 game appearances before the lower-body injury, Murray denied .940 percent of the shots he faced at five-on-five.
The volume and quality of saves cannot go ignored. Saturday's first period against Philadelphia provided a fine example, as Murray turned away all 16 pucks that reached him. That effectiveness helped the Penguins moved past a 20-minute frame in which they trailed, 16-7, in shots on goal.
“We're a little bit lucky maybe,” Evgeni Malkin said afterward. “Murray gave us a good chance to win. He played unbelievable (Saturday).”
Murray merely viewed what he provided early in the win as status quo. And the young goalie's respect and borderline desire for the mundane is a secret to his success.
“I think in such a crazy environment, there's a lot of nerves,” Murray said. “But once that puck drops, everything just kind of fades away, and you just focus on what you need to do.”
Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.
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