PITTSBURGH — Goaltender Matt Murray went into the last offseason with a solid plan.
His intent was to work on his game so, when the puck dropped for real in October, he would be at the top of his game.
Only it hasn’t worked out that way.
Through two games this season Murray and the Penguins are 1-1-0 and have allowed a whopping 11 goals in the two games. For a team that viewed its defense as a strength coming into the year, those are not viable numbers.
“I think Matt’s game is in the same place as our team is,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said after the team’s 5-1 home drubbing against Montreal on Saturday. “We all have to be better.”
Though not wholly at fault, Murray will get a long look because he is the team’s last line of the Penguins defense. And so far his numbers are shocking.
In two games he has stopped only 54 of 65 shots faced, a .831 save percentage. That is a severe drop-off from his .917 career save percentage.
Yet despite the numbers, Murray is encouraged somewhat by the way he has played.
“It’s frustrating for sure, but from my point of view, you can’t look at the results, I can’t control the scoreboard and can control what I’m doing,” Murray said. “I honestly felt really good out there, I know I was in the right position and a couple times that made good, quick plays and I’ve got to come up with a save.”
Murray is only part of the problem.
Sullivan pointed out the fact the team has been too offensively oriented. One of those habits, the defense pinching at the blue line, could be a cause for consternation if it becomes habitual.
“We got caught on a couple in the Washington series but I don’t that was the case (against Montreal). I think we’re getting caught in the counterattacking and people beating us back up the ice,” Sullivan said. “We play an aggressive style, but it’s a calculated style and not about throwing caution to the wind. None of our defensemen have free reign to pinch whenever they want.”
One of the first areas the team may examine are the defensive pairings. Olli Maatta and Jack Johnson were on the ice for the first two goals and both know that giving up 2-on-1s from your own blue line and mini-breakaways from between the circles just won’t get it done.
“I think that we’re a team that can score goals and we’ve got to play defense as hard as we can,” Maatta said. “I think it comes down to the details and saying in the system and you can’t have 2-on-1s and breakaways and that’s not the way you win.”
In their 7-6 overtime victory over Washington in the season opener, the Penguins allowed a hat trick to T.J. Oshie, one to Alex Ovechkin and, surprisingly, one to light-scoring defenseman Brooks Orpik. Against the Canadiens, they were victimized twice by Paul Byron and surrendered a shorthanded tally to Joel Armia.
Last season the Penguins allowed only three shorthanded goals.
“It sends a clear message that everyone has got to start thinking more defensively,” Johnson said. “We all recognize how much firepower is in this room and we’re all looking to create offense and score goals and you have to to win games, but you also can’t give up 11 goals in two games.”
If that weren’t alarming enough, not one defenseman on the team is currently in the black in plus-minus. The only blueliner not to be a minus player against Montreal was Brian Dumoulin.
Though two games into an 82-game slate are not the time to panic, the Penguins do have cause for concern. It also means there could be changes in the offing before they host Marc-Andre Fleury and the Vegas Golden Knights, Thursday.
One of the items on the agenda may be switching the defensive pairings and trying out different combinations until they find three that mesh.
“Sure, there’s a chance. I want to look at everything,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to put everything on the table and try to digest it and see where we go from here so we can get better.”