Matt Murray is not back. He’s even better than he ever has been for the Pittsburgh Penguins and the stats aren’t even close. Murray’s current eight-game streak is the most statistically prolific stretch of his career.
For over a year, Murray has struggled for consistent, stellar play befitting a franchise goalie. There have been more than a few Matt Hunwick sized obstacles in his way preventing him from reclaiming the form he showed winning two Stanley Cups before the expiration of his rookie status.
However, Murray’s overall play lagged even when his team didn’t. As the Penguins team defensive concept broke down or retreated last season, opponents were free to pick at Murray like vultures. For his part, Murray obliged opposing shooter’s need for net to shoot at, as well.
The franchise goaltender needed support and the team needed a few steals. Both sides were left wanting. Murray stumbled to a .907 save percentage last season and was hovering at an unacceptable .877 this season before being placed on injured reserve Thanksgiving day with a lower body injury.
On Nov. 17, after head coach Mike Sullivan was forced to pull Murray following the first period, Sullivan admitted Murray’s confidence was likely shaken, “I’m sure it is.” Sullivan also said, “We’re trying to help Matt through the process.”
A week later, Murray was on the IR. Pundits and analysts including on this page raised eyebrows about Murray’s future. National reports also suggested Penguins GM Jim Rutherford inquired about at least one veteran goaltender during the weeks leading up to putting Murray on injured reserve.
However, since returning to the net, Murray has won eight straight games. Though wins aren’t the best barometer of a goaltender, especially a netminder playing behind a team which racks up as many high scoring wins and losses as the Penguins. The biggest measure of Murray’s success since returning Dec. 15 are the stats.
In his first eights NHL starts which spanned Dec. 2015 to Mar. 2016, Murray allowed only 17 goals. Murray has had several eight-game stretches in his career in which he’s allowed 15, 16 or 17 goals but now he’s in another stratosphere with only 10 goals allowed in his last eight.
Murray’s save percentage on this run is .963 which has upped his season stopper rate to .917 and his record to 12-5-1. For those who dig into advanced stats, Murray’s GSAA (goals saved above average) is not only back in the plus territory, it’s approaching 5.0 according to Hockeyreference.com. Murray carried a -8.11 GSAA last season.
Yes, this season the Penguins have largely played much better in front of Murray. However, Murray has also paid a few old debts by stealing a couple wins for the Penguins in his last several starts. The wins over St. Louis and Florida looked like blowouts on the scoreboard but were far from the Penguins best games.
Suddenly fears and questions about Murray’s glove hand have vanished like a puck into the pillows. Tuesday night, Murray even made a scorpion save on a Florida breakaway.
Since goalie instruction is now a personalized, secretive process, Murray has typically declined to discuss what things he and Penguins goalie coach Mike Buckley have worked to improve. While Murray has not grown beyond his 6-foot-4, 178-pound frame he has certainly looked bigger in the net since his return.
Sharper technique breeds a few more saves which breeds confidence which breeds more saves and suddenly the puck is a beachball.
Ordinarily, an eight-game stretch would not be enough to erase more than a season of struggles but this is a different case. Murray is a different case as a young goalie who raced past development benchmarks and who posted extraordinary numbers over the first season and a half and dominated the playoffs.
Murray is unlikely to win the next 30 games. He’ll have a few clunkers and may even be pulled for backup Casey DeSmith, whose presence cannot be understated. DeSmith not only carried the goaltending responsibilities in the first half of the season, but he also pushed Murray upon the latter’s return.
Murray is fully healthy, his technique is sharp, his confidence is undoubtedly back, and the Penguins have a big worry removed.