PITTSBURGH — The goalie battle is on. Pittsburgh Penguins starting goaltender Matt Murray made 38 saves including more than a few saves beyond the routine as the Penguins beat the LA Kings, Saturday. And most importantly, Matt Murray may have found his smile.
The Penguins patchwork defense without top defenseman Kris Letang did little in the way of shot suppression. LA is the lowest scoring team in the NHL but Saturday they blitzed the Penguins zone. Including a 100-foot breakaway by Tyler Toffoli, the Kings had more than half of the scoring chances in the game and well more than half of the high danger chances. But Murray was a difference maker.
“I was really excited. I was having a blast out there,” Murray said. “Just being back out there, I was very thankful.”
Murray missed the past seven games with a lower body injury. He was placed on IR back on Nov. 23. The cherry on the Murray sundae was the victory. The Penguins third win in their past four games.
“I thought Matt was really good,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “I thought he got better as the game went on.”
Murray snared a one-timer from All-Star defenseman Drew Doughty early in the third period, as Doughty shook his head and stared at the heavens. Murray also stopped Tyler Toffoli on a breakaway in overtime. The goalie was at his best in overtime as he again gave a glimpse of the type of clutch performance which has defined his NHL career.
Murray stopped all four shots in overtime, including a few which had the PPG Paints Arena crowd gasping for air.
“It was really good to see him play to his level and the confidence he showed,” said Matt Cullen. “Obviously, some monster stops in overtime. I’m really happy for him. It was a big one for us.”
Murray, 24, made the 42-year-old Cullen, known as “Dad” happy. It was that kind of night for the big goaltender. The hard saves which eluded him earlier in the season and the bad breaks which went against him this season suddenly went his way. Like the deflected shot which caromed off the back of Jamie Oleksiak’s skate in the third period but went wide.
When things are going poorly, that puck goes in. Instead, it went a couple of feet wide and the play continued.
In overtime, Murray shined. In a glimpse into Murray’s thought process, the goaltender reflected on the overtime performance despite being asked about his overall game.
“If you’re able to make a save in overtime, it can be a big momentum swinger,” Murray said. “Obviously, you see how much open ice there is, and everybody is trying to score.”
Unfortunately, for the Penguins open ice was not limited to just overtime. The Penguins yielded the offensive high ground to the Kings for large portions of the game including the third period. Except for the third period goal, which was stoppable, Murray kept the Kings off the board and did more than give his team a chance to win.
Murray is now in a goaltender competition, real or otherwise, instituted by Sullivan in an attempt to get the best out of Murray. Wednesday, Sullivan clearly put Murray in a battle for his the starting job.
“When there’s competition, it brings out the best in (Murray), and (DeSmith) 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.”
Murray has not been the same goaltender since he was anointed the unquestioned starter beginning last season. He stumbled to a .907 save percentage last season and was rarely the dominant goalie the Penguins hoped when the handed him the franchise reigns.
This season, Murray was relegated to the bench on two occasions as the backup DeSmith made three straight starts because of Murray’s ineffectiveness. And the stats were not pretty. Before Saturday, Murray was 4-5-1 with an abysmal .877 save percentage and a ballooned 4.08 goals against average.
But Saturday, the net was his.
“Definitely get the butterflies going (at the start). I don’t know how long it’s been but it feels like forever since I last played,” Murray conceded. “I just had a blast and it was fun being back out there for real.”
Murray also conceded, perhaps he was not having as much fun this season.
“Maybe a little bit. It’s important. You’ve got to have fun out there, too, you know? And that kind of helps you loosen up,” a relaxed Murray said. “Playing in a tight game with a lot of chance, a lot of excitement, that’s a lot of fun.”
And if Murray resumes his big-time goalie path, the Penguins could have a lot more fun, too.