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.”
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.
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.
Shoot it! SHOOT IT! SHOOT IT!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/0LQACV9xTE
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) May 8, 2018
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.”