Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray skated out of his crease and to the corner after surrendering a goal just 17 seconds into Thursday night’s Game 1 of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the host Washington Capitals. He did not need to look over his shoulder, nor did he need to look to his bench. When it happened again just 28 seconds into the third period, this time a laser from Alex Ovechkin that gave the Capitals a 2-0 lead, there weren’t any whispers from Penguins fans that he should be replaced.
He had been surrounded by that kind of talk throughout the previous two postseasons. He helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup each of those seasons, yet the chatter always seemed to be the same among some fans: His backup at the time and a former franchise pillar, Marc-Andre Fleury, should be in the net. When Fleury left Pittsburgh, after he was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in last summer’s expansion draft, Murray finally was entrenched as the Penguins’ franchise goalie, despite being just 23.
So it was understandable that his confidence never wavered during the Penguins’ come-from-behind, 3-2 win Thursday in Capital One Arena, which was only possible because of the brilliance of star Sidney Crosby, the continued production of second-year forward Jake Guentzel and the resilience of Murray. Washington easily could have been leading by three or four or five goals by the time Ovechkin scored the team’s second early in the third period. At that point, it appeared the duel between Murray and Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby had been settled for the evening.
But Murray already had made a collection of acrobatic saves that kept his team within striking distance. By the end of the third period, as Fleury was more than 2,000 miles away and about to post a shutout in Game 1 of the Golden Knights’ Western Conference second-round series against San Jose, Murray had made two stunning saves with the inside of his blocker that denied surefire goals.
“What I see is a guy that has embraced the opportunity to be the number one goaltender,” Pittsburgh Coach Mike Sullivan said Friday. “Matt has a maturity beyond his years. I think sometimes we forget how young he is. He’s still a very young goalie. He’s a very accomplished goalie as a young goalie.”
Murray had to overcome an injury each of the previous two postseasons and, in the Stanley Cup finals against Nashville last year, he faced questions about being replaced by Fleury (after Murray had replaced Fleury in the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa) before finishing with a .937 save percentage and three shutouts, both of which were the best of any goalie in the playoffs. He logged two more shutouts against rival Philadelphia in the first round this year but allowed 13 goals in the other four games, including five in the decisive Game 6. And after giving up another to Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov just 17 seconds into Game 1 on Thursday night, those struggles seemed to be ongoing. Unlike in his first two postseasons, when Fleury made appearances, it never appeared that Murray might be replaced by backup Casey DeSmith on Thursday night.
“I have no expectations when I’m out there,” Murray said after his team had clawed back to win with three goals in the third period. “I can’t predict the future. I can’t control most of what happens. All I can control is what I do.”
Murray called those two blocker saves “deja vu.” The first came early in the second period after Washington’s Brett Connolly fired a shot through a screen that caromed off Murray. The rebound squirted out to Devante Smith-Pelly, whose shot at a wide-open net was robbed by Murray’s last-second reach. He did it again with three minutes remaining on a shot by Connolly that would’ve tied the score.
“It was like the exact same play: through a screen. So I came out to take out the first shot, wasn’t able to control the rebound and, when it went back door, I just tried to get something on it,” said Murray, who finished with 32 saves. “Like the rest of the game, you just try to be fluid. Those are tough. They’re through traffic, so it’s hard to keep that rebound where you want it to go. I just tried to battle and try to get something on it.”
Murray patiently waited to complete his media duties in the crammed dressing room Thursday night, and he was the last to speak before Sullivan. It was well after 10 p.m., and Fleury was moments away from leading the Golden Knights to a 5-0 record in these playoffs. Murray is no longer in Fleury’s shadow, but if the Penguins and Golden Knights keep winning, they could meet again, this time with the Stanley Cup at stake.
“I think Matt has always played his best,” Sullivan said, “when the pressure is on and the stakes are high.”
More on the Stanley Cup playoffs:
As Sidney Crosby directed the comeback, Jake Guentzel delivered the winner
Capitals’ Barry Trotz doesn’t clear up conversation with Blue Jackets’ John Tortorella
Many Penguins fans feel sympathy, not hatred, for their Capitals counterparts