It seems to be an annual November tradition, like watching overly cheery broadcasters announce Santa Clause at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or swiping a Ziploc bag of mom’s leftover stuffing then blaming the relatives, the Pittsburgh Penguins begin to have questions and a goalie controversy. The story seems to unfold every November as Matt Murray underachieves in the first half of the regular season until there is a challenge for his net.
Last season, head coach Mike Sullivan inserted Casey DeSmith for three-straight starts three times. Three years ago, Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury staged a duel for the net. This season, the foundation is in place for a real goalie challenge. Goalie Tristan Jarry seems to have arrived. Finally.
Monday night, Jarry was awarded his first start of the season, which wasn’t the second of a back-to-back. Before Monday night, Jarry had a remarkable .945 save percentage and 1.81 goals against average. His eye-popping statistics remained the same after the Penguins 3-2 OT win over the Calgary Flames.
“He was good. He was good tonight,” Sullivan said with some emphasis. “Tristan was big for us. He made some timely saves. He made the big save on the breakaway in overtime, and we go down to the other end and score.”
“If you watch overtimes over the course of the league, it just seems that’s what happens. So, those timely saves for us help you win games.”
Jarry stopped 32 of 34 shots on a night when the Penguins were nothing close to their best. His overtime stop on a Johnny Gaudreau breakaway was a game saver, as were a few of his saves in the third period when Calgary pressed for the road win.
”(Overtime) is fun. It’s fun to be a part of it. To be engaged in the game,” Jarry said. “Both sides had chances. It was a good back and forth.”
It wasn’t without peril. In the first and second periods, there were sequences in which Jarry couldn’t find the puck as it whizzed around the defensive zone. It went over, around, and past Jarry as the Penguins defense chased their tail.
“The puck was bouncing funny. It hit a couple of shin pads. It hit the glass funny a couple of times,” Jarry told PHN. “It was just one of those unlucky things where you have to watch it to see where it ends up.”
For the sixth time this season, the puck wound up with Jarry; in his trapper, in the breadbasket, in his pads but not in the net. Jarry is 4-2 in games he started including as a hard-luck loser to Marc-Andre Fleury in October when Vegas shutout the Penguins but Jarry allowed only one goal.
Pittsburgh Penguins Goalie Competition?
But the goalie battle, if there is one beyond the minds of fans and us trouble-making media, is like a boxing match. You have to knock out the champion. Draws and split decisions go against the challenger.
In this regard, Murray is still the unquestioned starter. Until head coach Mike Sullivan begins intentionally omitting words like “starter” and stops using phrases such as, “Matt is our goalie,” Murray is the guy. Last season, Sullivan intentionally dodged those questions with vague answers about whoever game them the best chance to win. After Murray clearly claimed the net, Sullivan reverted to the incontrovertible phrases.
Because Jarry was once a Pittsburgh Penguins second-round draft pick (2013), he came with a starters pedigree. However, Penguins coaches were not enamored with Jarry’s work ethic. That is a hard label or reputation to shake. Jarry has been upfront about the organization’s directive to work harder, especially in practice. Sullivan didn’t sugar coat it when PHN asked last Saturday.
“We felt as though his attention to detail and his focus in practice will translate to a more consistent game. That’s been one of the hurdles Tristan has to overcome to establish himself as a bonafide every day NHL goaltender.”
Jarry won his first round as a starter. It wasn’t a good night for the Penguins, but he and they kept the puck out of the net and escaped with a feel-good win. That counts for something, too.
Murray now gets his chance. He’s the incumbent and the starter. Whatever frustrations may exist on social media, Murray has mostly been solid this season. He has let a few squeakers get past, but that has been the case since he lifted his first Stanley Cup in 2016. Last season, the goalie competition propelled Murray to his best game. He posted a .930 save percentage after Dec. 15. If not for such a disastrous start to the season in which he toiled at, or below, .900, Murray would have been a Vezina candidate.
Jarry has played only 36 NHL games. Amusingly enough, this writer took heat for tempering expectations over Matt Murray in 2016 and 2017. The statistics are clear: A goalie goes through ups and downs in his first 100 games. Generally, the downs come near Game 60, or 80, as NHL sharpshooters and video coaches figure out the weaknesses and begin to attack. Then by Game 100 or so, the mold is poured.
Murray’s first down-cycle came later in that period, but it arrived nonetheless as his glove hand became a hot topic.
Jarry’s case is slightly different has he appeared in 26 games two years ago, but only two last season. He’s had time to adjust and grow, though perhaps he didn’t show it in practice or take the first go-round seriously enough.
Jarry is the golden boy because he’s not yet been cracked. He will be. And his response and pushback to the NHL opponents picking at him on the ice will determine his career path. For now, the Pittsburgh Penguins have a young, hungry goalie pushing hard for playing time. Jarry’s emergence is every bit as impressive as Murray’s was in the winter of 2016.
The pressure is now on Murray. Just the way he likes. Game on.