It won’t be the Pittsburgh media creating a goaltender controversy. In this case, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan is intentionally creating a battle for the Penguins net between Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith. Sullivan announced his intentions after practice, Tuesday in Chicago in which Murray was a full participant.
A “competition” is what Sullivan termed it.
“When there’s competition, it brings out the best in (Murray), and Casey’s had a strong start to the season. He’s won a lot of games for us. He’s made timely saves for us. He’s given us a chance to win on most nights he’s been in the net.”
In unspoken words, Sullivan acknowledged Murray has not been at his best as the unquestioned starter since the Expansion Draft departure of Marc-Andre Fleury and Sullivan is hoping to use DeSmith’s strong play as a motivation for Murray.
That’s a big gamble.
“That’s the nature of our business. We’re all pushing one another. Everybody’s fighting for roster spots or roles on a team or more ice time,” said Sullivan.
Except, that isn’t necessarily true. The typical axiom in sports around singular positions such as quarterback and goalie is, “when you have two, you have none.” There are rare exceptions, of course, such as the 2016-17 Penguins.
And so the Penguins head coach is hoping that a fight to get his net back will be the solution which propels Murray back to the unbeatable, surly, yet icy calm goaltender who stoned the Nashville Predators in Games 5 and 6 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. That was the pinnacle of Murray’s career. Those were likely the best games of his career but he has not been dominant or steady since.
Even Murray conceded his most recent injury did not necessarily hamper his performance, ” No, not really. No,” he said. “I’m not going to use it as an excuse. I was sore, but it was nothing to come out of play with…It didn’t really hinder many parts of my game. It’s pretty a specific injury.”
So, Sullivan’s gambit to use competition as the fulcrum to lift Murray has an inherent downside. What if Murray loses this battle?
Sullivan will not be able to camouflage if DeSmith wins the battle; not to his team, not to fans, and certainly not to Matt Murray.
Murray is a heady guy. He essentially took himself out of the Penguins lineup. If you read the PHN Extra story by Shelly Anderson from yesterday, Sullivan and the Penguins were a little surprised by Murray’s injury situation.
It’s not every day that a hockey player takes himself out of the lineup. Though the nature or specifics of Murray’s injury is still a mystery, he felt it worsened and the Penguins agreed to rest as the best remedy.
If DeSmith wins the goalie battle which Sullivan is creating for the specific purpose of jumpstarting Murray’s season (and career?), Murray will be the first to know it. The goaltender’s confidence which Sullivan has previously admitted was “probably” shaken, will take a bigger hit than before.
And then what?
In the best case scenario, Sullivan’s competition spurs both goalies to their best self. Murray again becomes the dominating big goalie whose impenetrable demeanor is again more contagious than the sloppiness which has plagued the Penguins.
But it’s the other scenarios which pose trouble for the Penguins. If this competition doesn’t bring out the best in Murray, then the Penguins will be back to the drawing board in hopes to resurrect Murray’s flagging play. Sullivan’s introduction of external motivation will only work if Murray responds to the challenge and the challenge can be corrected by simple mental adjustment.
Sullivan said, “You get healthy. Your body gets an opportunity to recover both mentally and physically. It will give him a great opportunity moving forward to have a fresh start and help this team win. We know he’s very capable.”
The Penguins are putting their chips on the table with Murray. There isn’t anywhere to go after this (at least this season). If DeSmith wins, he’s the goalie and the Penguins will have publicly cast their lot with him.
And one doesn’t think that would do much for Murray’s mental game, either.