The Pittsburgh Penguins goalie battle is back on, if it ever existed in the first place. It won’t be a popular sentiment but head coaches who take fan desires into account aren’t usually head coaches much longer and there have been a few words which have been conspicuously absent from head coach Mike Sullivan. That could be a giveaway of what comes next with Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry.
Earlier this week, Sullivan declined to say there is an open competition for the net between Jarry and Murray. Even with some prompting and a reminder that he did so last season when Murray struggled and Casey DeSmith filled in well, Sullivan leaned into the microphone and said, “no.”
Even as Jarry started 14 of 16 games and Murray was relegated to just three starts in December.
Instead, Sullivan has insisted the Penguins have two goalies and they will make decisions based on winning the next game. In other words, the hot hand stays in the net.
Saturday night, Matt Murray stopped 26 of 28 shots and was at worst solid, and at best brilliant as he swiped several point-blank chances and Arturi Lehkonen breakaway chances with the game on the line. Murray raised his record to 12-6-4 but still has a lowly .896 save percentage.
“I thought he made big saves at key times for us throughout the course of the game,” Sullivan said of his goalie. “I think Matt’s game is trending the right way.”
Murray’s last start was a 6-4 win over Nashville on Dec. 28. Murray made 44 saves on 48 shots but also allowed a couple of leaky goals. Murray had a stellar third period to preserve the win.
“I think Matt’s game is trending the right way. I think his last couple of starts have been pretty solid,” Sullivan said. “(Saturday) I think was his best, so we’re pretty pleased right now. We’ve got two goalies that are playing really well for us.”
Jarry has been the red-hot hand for the last six weeks. Since the Penguins decided to let Jarry make a start which wasn’t the second of back-to-back games on Nov. 22, he is 11-2-1 and allowed two goals or less in nine of those games. Overall, Jarry leads the NHL in save percentage (.936) and goals against average (1.94).
The Penguins have a packed January schedule with 11 games in 20 days leading to the NHL All-Star break which begins on Jan. 21. The Penguins will follow this packed schedule and the All-Star break with a bye week. They will have 10 days between games.
But their starting goalie on Jan. 31 against Philadelphia, and presumably the goalie on which the Penguins will rely is not yet decided.
Preemptively to the most cynical, Sullivan is not playing favorites with Murray. Sullivan has proven he will choose bench Murray when the goaltender isn’t performing well. Nor does Murray have photos of Sullivan in compromising a position.
Sullivan also knows Murray is the goalie who lifted two Stanley Cups and has matter-of-factly been at his best in high-stakes situations. Sullivan likes Murray’s stoic demeanor and calm play in those situations. He’s consistently cited those attributed over the past four years.
The Penguins coach clearly likes those qualities and believes if Murray is on his game, he adds those dimensions to the team in important situations.
Jarry is a different guy. In Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he was popular among teammates and is a loose personality. He didn’t dominate the AHL competition on his way to the NHL as Murray did in 2015-16. Had the Penguins not had a salary-cap crunch and if Jarry and DeSmith were both waiver exempt, it seems to be a good guess DeSmith would have been the backup goalie this season.
But a funny thing has happened.
Jarry has not only played well, but he has also raised the bar for Murray to win back his net. Sullivan refused to open the competition or even give Jarry the public nod and that speaks volumes about the next steps.
Jarry cannot possibly maintain a sub-2.00 goals against average or a save percentage close to .940, no matter how well the Penguins are defending in front of him. Those numbers were once reserved for Hall of Fame goalies and have not been achieved in a long time. Jarry’s numbers will rise.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will have a goalie battle, but Sullivan’s words or lack thereof have set the parameters. It is Murray’s net but he must claim it, but Jarry may have it as long as he continues to earn it.
Jarry has shown nothing in his game to cause doubt that he is an NHL goalie. There are some flaws with his lateral movement which have been exploited, but the Penguins superior team defense has kept Jarry safe. And every goalie has flaws. Murray has not yet been able to take advantage of the Penguins stellar defensive efforts but that may change.
The next few weeks will be crucial. Murray will be given a chance to re-establish his position, while Jarry may keep it if he continues to clearly outplay Murray. It may not be a fight on equal ground, but the Penguins goalie battle is on.