It can no longer be dismissed as coincidence. It is no longer a question, “If”. Matt Murray completes the Pittsburgh Penguins puzzle in a way that Marc-Andre Fleury does not. The team plays a different game with the big Murray between the pipes and it is a far more successful game. With Murray back in net, the Penguins have played consecutive strong games, for the first time in the playoffs.
Perhaps head coach Mike Sullivan knew better when he swerved everyone and replaced his leading Conn Smythe Trophy candidate, Fleury, with Murray for Game 4.
Fleury stole several games in the Penguins route to the Eastern Conference Final. It was necessary. The Penguins lost shot battles and puck possession, yet pocketed a few games they didn’t deserve.
With Murray in net, the Penguins suddenly do not need their goaltender to steal games. Instead, the Penguins are again dominating games, outshooting opponents by a wide margin, and controlling the puck. Since goaltenders don’t forecheck, break the neutral zone trap or win puck battles, a goalie should not change a team.
But Matt Murray changes the Penguins.
It has little or no tangible explanation. Fleury is one of the top puck stoppers in the NHL. He has and has shown the ability to steal games for his team. With Fleury in goal, the Penguins allow more scoring chances, more great scoring chances, and more shots.
With Murray in net, the Penguins control their own zone, do not get rattled when the opponent pushes back, and control the puck.
If you have an answer, you know more than the Penguins players. Intangibles don’t have to make sense.
At the height of the Fleury-Murray debate, several players were asked about it, on and off the record. The answers ranged from acknowledgment with disappointment to an explanation of opponent differences and dismissal.
But no one could explain why, with any certainty. Simply, it is. Simply, it is Matt Murray.
Murray stopped 25 shots, Sunday. The Penguins scored seven goals. In the previous two shutouts, under Fleury, the Penguins scored a total of three goals. In the Game 7 shutout in Round 2, the Penguins allowed 49 shots. In the Game 2 shutout, the Penguins scored one, lonely goal.
Murray fills the net. He calmly absorbs deflections. He doesn’t “Whooo” or laugh when the game gets intense. He plays deep in his net and leaves some holes. Murray also has an innate ability to blend into the game, without drawing attention until one looks at the scoring sheet, later.
It’s that lack of drama which would put E! out of business but provides the fuel for the Penguins motor. Early in Game 5, some noticed the Penguins “motor” finally beginning to churn:
I don’t think this stops at 2-0…
The engine is starting to turnover… https://t.co/kZLC46QaoC
— Dan Kingerski (@Budmoonshine) May 21, 2017
Murray’s icy calm demeanor, sometimes detached or sometimes surly, fits gels with his head coach’s intensity. His demeanor fits an equation no one can see, or tabulate, but everyone can see the result.
Just in case you doubted the difference, here is the updated season shot chart:
SHOTS ALLOWED–MURRAY SHOTS ALLOWED–FLEURY
A bit of a difference, eh? The difference is not Save Percentage on high dangers chances, or poor rebound control. It isn’t opponent quality or the day of the week.
It is Matt Murray.
Murray has grown this season. His habit of throwing his team under the bus has abated. Without whirlwind media coverage, he became more approachable to the media. He occasionally laughed with media, not at them (Murray was asked a litany of dumb questions, last year. D-U-M-B questions. Sometimes he couldn’t help but fire off sarcasm. Usually well earned).
Murray has not yet proven he can stay healthy. In Round 1, Fleury was thrust into the lineup because of Murray’s groin injury. Fleury had the opportunity to stand on his head in the first quarter of the season because of Murray’s broken hand.
None of that matters when you win playoff games and your team functions efficiently.
Any thoughts of the Penguins having a last minute change of heart, to keep Fleury and deal Murray, should be extinguished. The Pittsburgh Penguins have made their choice, and they appear better for it.
Simply, it is Matt Murray.