Goaltenders are only as good as the players in front of them. So goes the adage and so goes the fate of the Pittsburgh Penguins goaltenders Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith.
Murray began the Penguins four-game Canadian road trip with a 38-save shutout in Toronto. Backup goaltender DeSmith ended the trip with a 29-save shutout in Vancouver. Murray and DeSmith made tough saves and each was good enough to earn a shutout.
But the common ingredient in each was not a goaltender who stole a game, but a team which backchecked, protected the scoring zones and didn’t leave their goaltender to fend for himself against a horde of rushing opponents. That’s how it works. If a team will protect the goalie, play smart hockey, and take care of the puck, their goalie looks infinitely better than when he’s left alone to face a cavalcade of odd-man breaks, great scoring chances and must watch every rebound.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said after the Oct. 18, 3-0 win in Toronto, “When we didn’t (have the puck), we worked collectively as a group of five to try and get it back.”
It’s funny how much better Murray has looked this season when the Penguins have defended, isn’t it? Perhaps a big part of Murray’s struggles last season was the barrage of two-on-one chances, defenders who turned the puck over at their own blue line, and forwards who watched from afar as their man had time and space to pick clean the Penguins goaltenders.
“I thought we played really solid. We battled hard. (Toronto) is a crazy dynamic team and we were able to hold them off,” Murray said after the Toronto shutout.
It’s a lot harder to pick at Murray’s glove side with a defender on the shooter. It’s harder to find that sliver of daylight on a goaltender with a defenseman in the way. And it’s even harder to play the puck when a thick defenseman is plastering the puck carrier on the boards.
Last season, no full-time Penguins defenseman had less than 40 turnovers. Saturday in Vancouver the Penguins defense combined for just a single turnover. And so it should not be a surprise the Penguins won 5-0.
Last season, the Penguins defensive zone coverage was more spotty than a firehouse Dalmatian. Forwards treated their blue line as if police had laid road spikes and goaltenders probably muttered, “help?!”
Murray stumbled to a .907 save percentage as questions arose about his career trajectory and more questions arose about his ability to protect his glove side.
Murray has started five games this season but during the road trip, his save percentage climbed to .910 and his GSAA (goals saved above average) climbed into positive territory (.21). Last season, Murray’s GSAA was an unsightly -8.11.
DeSmith’s numbers jumped, too. He’s up to a .939 save percentage and a healthy 4.08 GSAA after four games played.
More Than Responsibility
It’s also tough to play the puck against physical defenders. Last season, the Penguins leading hitter was Ryan Reaves with 162 but Reaves was dealt near the February trade deadline. He also didn’t play much when he was in the lineup. This season, Jack Johnson has dished 31 hits in nine games and is on pace for 282.
Johnson is also on pace for a team-leading 182 blocks. Brian Dumoulin led the Penguins last season with 132 blocks. Jamie Oleksiak is also carrying his substantial weight in the defensive zone with 17 hits and 11 blocks in eight games.
Goaltenders seem to make more key saves when they aren’t asked to stand on their heads or steal hockey games. Confidence grows. And often that confidence carries from game to game, like Matt Murray’s glowing 41-save performance in the 6-5 OT win in Edmonton. That night the Penguins decided to abandon the defensive zone just like old times but their goaltender bailed them out.
Bad defense can create false perceptions, like an illusion. When a team repeatedly leaves its goaltender defenseless, the last big save doesn’t mean as much when the other team scores on the next big chance. But when a team protects its goalie and there are fewer chances, that big save stands out.
The recent structured play is quite a difference from last season. Goaltending is about the players in front as much as the player in the net. And the recent results only reinforce that old adage.