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Mixed-Bag Finale A Fitting End To Matt Murray’s Season

His NHL credentials were already vast entering 2017-18, but this year was supposed to be a step forward.



NHL trade, Alex Ovechkin contract
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PITTSBURGH — His NHL credentials were already vast entering 2017-18, but this was the season that Matt Murray was supposed to unquestionably seize the reins as the Penguins’ No. 1 goalie for years to come.

After the defending champions’ flame burned out in the second round Monday night, Murray’s status as the top dog in the Pittsburgh crease isn’t necessarily in doubt, but the past seven months didn’t bring the coronation for which many in the organization had hoped.

Murray’s Game 6 performance against the Capitals was tidily reminiscent of his season on the whole, complete with rebounds and stumbles. Alex Chiasson‘s short-side goal was leavened by a breakaway save moments later on Jakub Vrana, much like a few late-season highlights salvaged what was looking like a rough first experience as ‘the guy’ in Pittsburgh.

“He made some big saves,” Mike Sullivan said late Monday night at PPG Paints Arena. “He gave us a chance to win. He’s another one of our guys who hasn’t tasted defeat in a long time. I know we’ll all learn from it. We’ll all become better people and better players as a result.”

To be crystal clear, some of Murray’s troubles were out of his control, chief among those the midseason death of his father. Imagine going through that at age 23 while holding down a highly-visible, high-pressure job in a major city.

Also, depending upon the lens through which you view his two injuries this season, Murray was the victim of bad luck on the ice as well. He’s been prone to minor injuries in the past, but the health concerns this year — courtesy of Flyers winger Jakub Voracek and teammate Olli Määttä — cost him a bit more time than usual.

“He’s a real competitor,” Sullivan said. “He’s been through a lot of adversity this year. He’s a real good person that loves this team. And he battles. I think it’s the highest compliment you can give a player.”

Rough Comparison

Yet, there were still plenty of moments that made you wonder about Murray’s long-term prospects.

His well-chronicled struggles with the glove hand showed up at critical moments, giving anecdotal evidence to back up the discouraging hard data — a .907 save percentage in the regular season and a .908 in the playoffs. Compare those numbers to his .925 (regular season) and .928 (playoff) numbers across his first two NHL seasons.

For reference, Marc-André Fleury posted a full-season save percentage below .907 just twice with the Penguins, both of which occurred in the previous decade, when save percentage standards were a lower than they are now. Fleury was decidedly average for a long time here, but the results Murray put up this season match the worst moments of Fleury’s polarizing tenure in Pittsburgh.

I bring up Fleury for a reason beyond that. (Hey, you were all thinking it anyway.) His .927 renaissance in Las Vegas during the regular season has only been amplified by his spectacular playoff results to date. Fleury’s .951 save percentage through two rounds reminds of his rarefied level in last year’s postseason, before Murray supplanted him during the third round against the Senators.

That juxtaposition isn’t flattering, even if we most of us outsiders can agree the Penguins made the right percentage move in sticking with the younger, cheaper goalie after an awkward time share between Murray and Fleury in 2016-17.

Silver Lining

There are plenty of questions surrounding Murray as he finishes the first year of a three-year contract worth $3.75 million annually.

How much should we discount his 2017-18 performance because of the tragic situation back home in Thunder Bay, Ont.? How much does his stellar output in his previous two Stanley Cup runs supersede what he did this spring? Can the Penguins count on him to play more than 50 games in a given season? Is a technique revamp in order with goalie coach Mike Buckley, whom the team promoted last summer because of Murray’s comfort with him?

If there’s an encouraging note about Murray’s body of work this season, it’s that his high-danger save percentage didn’t dip as far as his overall save percentage. Stopping high-danger chances has been proven to be more indicative of ‘true talent’ over the long haul, and Murray was almost dead in the middle of the back among goalies who played over 1,000 even-strength minutes in 2017-18.

Not to say that Murray can afford to take it easy this summer, but a return to form might not take much more than a simple reset, both mental and physical. Heck, Evgeny Kuznetsov only went 1 for 2 in one-on-one situations against Murray, with a second-period miss that shows how Murray can still make elite shooters second-guess themselves.

If we want to keep the symbolism thing going, that scrambling save could be a metaphor for Murray going into the future. Down and out, then quickly back in position. Amidst the despondence of playoff elimination, Murray seemed to be betting on a bounce-back, at least as far as the team goes.

“This group is so resilient,” Murray said, head down in his locker stall. “We showed that to the very end. Lot of pride in here.”

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter from 2016-18, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He contributes commentary and analysis here in various forms.

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4 years ago

Goalies are like QBs who get too much credit in victory or blame in defeat. From my perspective, he is the least of the Pens worries. The weak glove is overblown too. Yes he has gotten beat glove side. There are only a few sides where goalies can get beat. Does he have a 5 hole weakness now with the game winning goal from last night? If he gets beat blocker side, then that is a weakness? No doubt he has room to improve. IMO, he wasn’t mentally sharp as normal as a few of the soft goals demonstrated. If… Read more »

Matt Luda
Matt Luda
4 years ago

The Murray-versus-Holtby matchup was a bit overstated. There wasn’t much different between them if you add the goal against Holtby that was disallowed and subtract the goal against MM that should have been waived off, both in Game 2.

The more significant matchup was Carlson versus Letang. Carlson was on the ice for only one goal against in the series, while Letang was lit up for nine. Yuge difference.

Steven Pavlik
4 years ago

So I know you’re a fit guy and work out, Matt. I do myself. I really feel like Matt Murray could use some gained muscle to improve his athletic performance in net. I hope someone in the Penguins organization could nudge him into doing this. I think significant upper body strength would improve his slow glove hand. Having more muscle overall could also help his durability during the regular season. Not trying to sound like a jerk, but there’s got to be other exercises to improve glove hand skills as well. As someone who’s played countless hours of catch in… Read more »

4 years ago

i think the big difference this year is that the pens stopped playing to ‘protect’ the goalie when Murray was in the crease. Remember the narrative over the last 2 years was that the pens played different in front of Murray and “exposed” Fleury. Fleury is top 3 goalie vs breakaways, so giving up 5 a game wasn’t an issue (I miss watching that last minute like check). If they can regain that team defence and not rely on 5 goals + historically great reg season PP, then Murray’s form will return.

Dan Kingerski
4 years ago
Reply to  Joelatron

Very interesting thoughts. Dovetails with some things I wrote (Pens are giving Caps space, time, etc…) but there is something to that…