With a scrambled defensive corps, the Pittsburgh Penguins will rely on Matt Murray to make timely saves, big saves, and perhaps many of them, if they are to advance past the Columbus Blue Jackets and presumably the Washington Capitals to win the Metro Division and eventually win another Stanley Cup. Murray’s challenge to be big begins in the first round matchup against Columbus, which boasts Vezina Trophy favorite Sergei Bobrovsky.
If Murray struggles, the Penguins cannot wait to make the hard choice: Play Marc-Andre Fleury.
When Murray is playing well, he plays quiet and big. At his best, there are few wasted movements in his game and little space for shooters. When he is not playing well, he stays low, his glove hand and seven-hole (glove side armpit) are flashing neon signs which invite shooters.
After stumbling in March, it is not immediately clear which version of Murray will start in the playoffs. So, if Murray is not immediately up to that task of keeping the Blue Jackets off the scoreboard and dueling with Bobrovsky, the Penguins cannot hesitate to insert Fleury, the veteran netminder who has been mostly razor-sharp since March 1.
Facing open scoring chances and many of them, if that occurs, will be a far different assignment than Murray faced in the 2016 playoffs. In the playoffs last season, Murray spent long portions of each game alone in his own zone. The Penguins hogged the puck and dominated high danger scoring chances.
Murray’s shining moment was a 47 save performance against Washington in Game 3 of the second round. Murray stole the game and changed the series. He was not similarly challenged again.
Make no mistake, Murray is the starting goaltender by merit, not because of age, future implications or coach’s preference. Murray outplayed Fleury when the pair platooned in the first half of the season. Simply put, Murray won the job.
Matt Murray, Protected?
Murray’s strengths are evident. His puck stopping skills are not in question. However, Murray’s job has been statistically easier, significantly, than Fleury’s job, this season. Look at the “shots against” heat map from Hockeyviz.com:
Murray Shots Against:
Fleury Shots Against:
As you can see by the lack of red in front of Murray and the large red circles in front of Fleury, Murray faced far fewer and less dangerous scoring chances. The “why” is debatable: Murray’s icy or calm on-ice demeanor. Murray’s small on-ice movements inspire confidence. The Penguins tried too hard for Fleury. The Penguins trust Fleury to make big saves and took more chances.
Pick your favorite, or mash a few of them. The result is undeniable.
Murray faced 35 or more shots in 12 of 47 starts. Fleury faced 35 or more shots 14 times in 34 games.
Murray continued his strong play through the second half of the season, but stumbled in March, as the Penguins defensive play evaporated, due to injuries to several defensemen including Kris Letang. In March, a few stellar performances buoyed Murray’s numbers to a .911 save percentage and 2.85 goals against average.
Troubling for the Penguins, Murray had nearly identical mediocre numbers in January, which also coincided with Letang missed games due to injury.
Murray’s ability to forget goals, especially bad goals, sets him apart. His focus and intensity are strong selling points. What is unproven is Murray’s ability to withstand an onslaught. Can he be shelled and keep the opponent to three or fewer goals? In the 12 times he faced 35 or more shots, Murray’s save percentage was a whopping .943.
Where the eye test and stats diverge, however, is understanding the quality of chances and territory controlled. It’s hard to argue Murray was under siege in any but a few games. While it would be easy to make the argument Fleury was hung out to dry, more than a few times.
Fleury posted a .923 percentage in the 14 games in which he faced more than 35 shots, including several games in which he was the Penguins best player. Fleury has proven the ability to give his team a chance to win despite being badly outplayed.
The Pittsburgh Penguins defense is now as healthy as it will get and will not improve beyond its current state. Speedy offensive defenseman Trevor Daley returned for two of the final three games of the season. Olli Maatta returned for the final game of the year. Counting Chad Ruhwedel, the Penguins have eight NHL defensemen to piece together a Top 6.
The Penguins will ice an acceptable blueline troop, but not one which aligns with the quality iced by typical Stanley Cup champions. To get past Columbus, presumably Washington and the best the Western Conference offers, the Penguins goalie will be subjected to more high danger chances than last year’s Cup run.
Murray will get the chance to show he is capable in the different environment. He will get multiple chances. But if he stumbles behind a struggling defense, the Penguins cannot hesitate to make the change to Fleury. Future consequences matter far less than the 2017 Stanley Cup.
(Dan Kingerski is a reporter for 93-7 The Fan. He was previously a nationally syndicated host for Rogers Sportsnet and was a show host on NHL Home Ice. He will be covering games for CBS Radio and provide written analysis and commentary. No proprietary materials collected while credentialed for team access through 93-7 The Fan have been used.)