Matt Murray was lost by the time he hit the disabled list in mid-November. The Pittsburgh Penguins goalie was statistically one of the worst starting goalies in the NHL, his team had turned to backup Casey DeSmith for several starts in a row on two occasions and behind closed doors the organization was worried.
By mid-November, Murray’s numbers were at the bottom of the league since being anointed the top goalie in Pittsburgh by way of Marc-Andre Fleury’s departure for Vegas. In save percentage, high danger save percentage, goals saved, he was lagging. It certainly did not help that Murray’s team was also in a funk in which the defensive zone participation was often hot garbage.
Murray’s glove hand took more abuse than that guy wearing a Nickelback T-shirt.
Murray had already visited the injured list a couple of times and worries not only grew about the goalie’s ability to stop the puck but his ability to stay on the ice.
But that month off changed everything.
From Nov. 17 to Dec. 15 Murray healed from a nagging injury and worked on technique. Upon his return, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan refused to name him the starting goaltender publicly and opted for a competition with Casey DeSmith. It really could have been a make-or-break moment for Murray. Had he flopped in that situation, his long term future would have been in doubt as well as his team’s short term future.
Instead, Murray thrived.
There is still one lingering issue, however.
Matt Murray Report Card: B
Murray’s numbers since Dec. 15 are fantastic. He posted a .930 save percentage which ranked fifth among starting goaltenders with at least 20 games played. His advanced metrics were also on the cusp of great since his return. His goals-saved-above-average was a robust 14.67. For comparison, his GSAA was in negative territory last season. Stat according to Hockey Reference.
Murray’s resurgence was reason enough to forget the first semester failures and grade exclusively on December-April.
Murray was a primary reason the Penguins were able to win games in March without Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Evgeni Malkin. The Penguins needed to win low scoring games and Murray obliged. And Murray kept the Penguins in games in games during Round One when the team frequently granted the New York Islanders odd-man rushes.
A lesser goalie would have guaranteed the Penguins were swept.
The bugaboo surrounding Murray’s season, after his return, was still soft goals. It’s been Murray’s albatross since he entered the league including the 2016 playoffs when he allowed few goals but had an issue with game-deciding softies.
It’s hard to forget Murray whiffing on an easy puck from the wall in the Stadium Series game which allowed Philadelphia to force overtime and Murray’s locker room response, “I feel like shit.”
Those iffy goals are what separate the best and are the reason he did not earn an A grade. However, the Penguins must have breathed easier watching Murray return to his top form with quiet movement from post to post, a tall posture to take away openings for shooters, and an ability to read the play and anticipate the shot.
Murray is still average picking up pucks through traffic, which is one reason the Penguins size on defense is essential and not an irrelevant fact regarding Murray’s improved numbers.
Overall, Murray posted a .919 save percentage and 2.62 goals against average. Given the ugliness which those season-long numbers include, they’re almost remarkable. Murray is still only 24-years-old and not yet in a goalie’s prime years, so a B grade seems most appropriate. Had he stopped just a few more of the late game goals, his grade would be an A.
The Penguins teamwork and (lack of) cooperative play put Murray in more than a few tough spots but he responded. One can choose to harp on his average or below average facets, or wisely look at the totality. We recommend the total.