Standing Tall: Why Sullivan Turned to Murray for Big-Game vs. Caps
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Standing Tall: Why Sullivan Turned to Murray for Big-Game vs. Caps

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Matt Murray Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray started on Sunday in the Penguins first big game of the year when they faced the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena. Murray has a few big postseason wins in that building which propelled the Penguins to the 2016 Stanley Cup and continued the Penguins mastery over Washington.

Penguins fans loudly sang on the museum steps that night. And that’s a primary reason Murray was in goal on Sunday. Not those games specifically, but everything it represented.

And Murray was as brilliant on Sunday as he was at any point in those previous playoff games. Washington blitzed the Penguins in the third period, but Murray and the Penguins survived for a 4-3 win. The final shot clock of the third period was only 13-5, but that’s because the Penguins blocked a few shots, and Washington passed up a few great scoring chances.

“He was awesome. He was spectacular,” defenseman Jack Johnson said. “Everyone is super pumped for him. He played the way we know he is capable of playing.”

The final period was played in the Penguins zone and Murray was on his head. Call it a stolen two points.

In different words, Sullivan has long praised Murray as a big-game goaltender. He is the guy whose presence and demeanor helps his team to breathe just a little easier in tight situations when breathing is difficult. That doesn’t mean Tristan Jarry wasn’t worthy of the start, but it means Murray is proven.

“That third period. It was pretty crazy,” Murray said. “Give them credit. They are where they are in the standings for a reason. They’re a super good team. They’re dynamic.”

Where Washington is in the standings is first place. The battered and bruised Penguins, which once trailed Washington by double digits early in the season, pulled to within just four points with the win.

Murray’s last start was roiled with controversy after those same Penguins fans showered him with mock cheers and boos after the Boston Bruins scored two goals in the first two minutes and two seconds of the game on Jan. 19.

The Penguins players were not happy with their faithful.

It’s a new chapter in the season. After an abysmal November and December, Murray has won five in a row, including that Boston game, has raised his save percentage to .900 and lowered his GAA to 2.84.

Make that six in a row.

“I thought Matt was terrific. He made some big stops, especially in the third period. His rebound control was strong. He was tracking the puck really well,” Sullivan said. “He played a really strong game for us.”

But to preemptively answer the question–Why Murray?– the answer is as complicated as it is simple. Matt Murray is still the Penguins netminder. His resume and stack of big wins and big saves in high-pressure situations are not forgotten, at least on the inside of the Penguins organization.

Beyond Sullivan’s “we have two good goalies,” mantra, when he lays his head on the pillow a night before a must-win situation, it’s about confidence and trust.

For those reasons, if Sullivan had to play one game for the season tomorrow, Murray would be the starter. Despite his mid-season foibles, Murray has played his best games when the pressure has been the most intense. Murray does have two Stanley Cup rings as a starting goalie.

Even if Sullivan sidestepped the question on Saturday, that’s the story.

“We’re just trying to make decisions game to game, but also trying to have the big picture in mind when we’re trying to manage the workloads of the goaltenders and trying to win the game right in front of us,” as Sullivan used his oft-repeated refrain Saturday.

Despite Sullivan tamping down the importance of the game beyond two points, it mattered. This game mattered a lot. It’s the top two teams in the Metro and two Eastern Conference contenders. Each knows they will probably have to go through the other to get to the Stanley Cup.

Eventually, the Penguins will have to pick a goalie. Teams don’t flip flop netminders during the crucial parts of the season and especially in the playoffs. One goalie will need to be given the net on a full-time and permanent basis. That goalie will need to establish a rhythm, in good times and bad.

Despite Jarry’s superior performance in the first half, that goalie is still Matt Murray.

Jarry has been more than a pleasant surprise this season. His play not only earned an All-Star bid, but he led the NHL in save percentage and goals against average for more than two months. He’ll get a chance to play in a few big games down the stretch, too. The Penguins do have the Tampa Bay Lightning on their schedule twice in the next two weeks.

But for the first clash of the titans, Sullivan went with Murray. And you saw why.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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