Almost like clockwork, as the calendar turns to March, the Pittsburgh Penguins begin winning. After a nearly disastrous end to February in which the Penguins lost six in a row, March has brought a pair of wins, and a couple of Matt Murray wins, too.
To the chagrin of many fans and a few media types, Murray is the Penguins starter. You can argue and offer counterpoints all day. It is. And it has been. It was confirmed by internal sources weeks ago and the recent schedule is proof.
Barring a last-second change by coaches, the Penguins will use Murray on Saturday against the division-leading Washington Capitals, which will be his third straight start. Murray has not posted great stats this season and the recent Penguins skid didn’t do him any favors. Murray’s season save percentage slipped below .900 again, and he posted four straight games with a sub-.900 save percentage.
It’s not that backup Tristan Jarry hasn’t earned more playing time, or that Jarry isn’t going to be a good goalie, the situation is simple: Murray is already the guy.
“We played pretty well (Thursday night), and last game we played well so we’re going in the right direction,” Murray said. “And that’s all that matters. We just want to keep building.”
The 4-2 win over Buffalo on Thursday, which included a handful of brilliant saves boosted Murray’s save percentage up to .900, but upped his record to 19-10-5.
“I thought he was real good, especially in the second,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “He made some big saves for us down the stretch, but in the second period where I didn’t think we were at our best, I thought Matt was really good.”
Murray stopped all 10 shots in the second period, and while that number isn’t high, the total included a breakaway chance, a two-on-none, and a couple of high-danger one-timers. Buffalo had nine scoring chances on 10 shots.
It was as if Murray had done this before.
“He was huge. They had probably three or four odd-man rushes and breakaways,” winger Patric Hornqvist said. “And he made really big stops for us.”
“And that’s why here’s there, too. He’s been great, and in the third (period), we came up big for him.”
It’s a trust factor. Hornqvist doesn’t speak to the media in long sessions. Like his on-ice shifts, Hornqvist bursts through with energy, he sometimes takes the beating and then ends his shift. His typical 90-second media scrum (he’s got a precise internal clock), was only 68 seconds on Thursday, but he said a mouthful.
That is why Murray is there.
The Penguins expect Matt Murray to be their stellar backstop, and to take two points, as he did Thursday. As PHN reported last month, the goalie rotation has been decided, but not set in stone. Murray is the starter, but not with impunity. He will make the big starts, including the playoffs but he does not have a guarantee.
Any similarities to 2015-16 are purely intentional.
Sullivan has been rotating starts between Jarry and Murray as neither firmly seized the job, especially behind a team that was struggling. That is changing. It’s time for that to change. March is the time to get set for what comes next. March is to firm up deficiencies, clean up bad habits, and get set for the grueling playoffs.
In his five year career, Murray has made more starts in March (34) than any other month. He has more wins (23) and has a .919 career save percentage in March. He’s the opposite of “in like a lion and out like a lamb.” Murray’s March record is now up to an impressive 23-8-5.
It’s highly likely that Murray will stare down the Washington Capitals again on Saturday. The Penguins finally have a spate of divisional games to gain their interest, as the regular season comes to a close.
The Penguins trail both Washington and Philadelphia by three points for the top of the Metro Division, but the Penguins vs. Washington always has greater stakes than a cheesy regular-season divisional banner. It’s about supremacy. It’s about who is the best, not who has the most points.
It is a big game and will be a playoff atmosphere. And the Penguins will lean on their guy. Matt Murray.