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Why Matt Murray is the Penguins' most important player this season

The Penguins' superstars haven't shown signs of exiting their primes. But the only way to keep up with other emerging teams in the East is to get better goaltending. Healthy Murray might provide just that.

“He stood tall for us,” Sidney Crosby said.

“He won the game for us tonight,” Evgeni Malkin said.

“That’s the type of performance we’ve grown accustomed to since he’s been our goalie,” coach Mike Sullivan said.

If you’d only ever seen rookie Matt Murray or playoff Matt Murray, you’d think the Pittsburgh Penguins' leaders were stating the obvious Thursday night after a disciplined, defensively smothering road victory over the first-place Toronto Maple Leafs. But there was an undercurrent of relief behind Murray’s shutout, which featured a hard-earned 38 saves against some quality Leaf chances.

Why the relief? Because the truth is, as much as Sullivan pumped his goaltender’s tires, Thursday’s performance was not something we’ve grown accustomed to from Murray at all. Not over the past year, which has been positively hellish after he opened his career with back to back Stanley Cups. He lost chunks of time in 2017-18 because of various upper- and lower-body injuries, a concussion and even the death of his father. After posting a sparkling .925 save percentage across his first two seasons, Murray tumbled to .907 last year, placing him 38th among the 49 qualified leaders. He struggled to start 2018-19 as well. Since the beginning of last season, among the 53 goaltenders with at least 1,000 total minutes of 5-on-5 play, Murray ranks 52nd in SP, 51st in low-danger SP, 37th in medium-danger SP, 42nd in high-danger SP and 49th in goals-saved above average. Wow. After looking like a perennial Vezina Trophy candidate in the making, Murray may well be the NHL’s worst goaltender over the past 12 months.

So the Penguins were not at all “accustomed to” seeing Murray excel of late. His 6-foot-4, 178-pound frame continues to take a beating and hold back his obviously immense talent. Since his NHL debut in 2015-16, he’s endured eight separate injury absences. Scarier still, three of those were the result of concussions, including two in the past seven calendar months, sparking legitimate questions about whether he can be the long-term No. 1 goalie he appeared to be as recently as 2016-17.

So Thursday’s performance had to be an immense lift for Murray and the Penguins. He wasn’t just decent. He looked elite against the NHL’s top offensive team. And he felt physically right. In fact, he felt good several days before he was tapped to rejoin the lineup.

“I was a little antsy,” Murray said. “I’ve been healthy for a while now and still haven’t played. So I was just a little anxious tonight to get in there.”

He wasn’t remotely tentative. He was quick and athletic and focused. He really did look 100 percent healthy.

“He makes timely saves, and I thought he was really locked in tonight,” Sullivan said. “He saw the puck, he was fighting through the traffic, and he was really solid.”

And the timing couldn’t have been better. The Pens, after making very few roster tweaks in the summer, were off to ho-hum 2-1-2 start, surrendering 19 goals in five games. Finally losing to the Washington Capitals in a playoff series last year led some to question whether the Pens were nearing the end of their Stanley Cup window and trending toward a collapse, like was saw from the Chicago Blackhawks over the past several seasons as their core stars began to age out of elite status.

With a top-heavy roster structure paying a select number of stars monster cap hits, the win-now Penguins are pretty much maxed out, with little room for any more significant roster additions without sending a big contract the other way in a trade. Improvement likely has to come from within, which would have to mean progress from prospects such as Daniel Sprong – or progress in net. More than any other player, Murray has potential to hike the Penguins’ status from good back to great again. Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel are already pulling their weight, so it’ll be Murray’s contributions that make or break this season.

Thursday was arguably the first time we’ve seen vintage, healthy Matt Murray in at least a year, halting a stretch of 48 regular-season games without a shutout. It appears he’s back. Now it’s a matter of whether he can stay healthy, which, sadly, is no guarantee.


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