Before starting his third NHL campaign, Matt Murray had already played in 32 playoff games, two Eastern Conference finals, two Stanley Cup finals, was the goaltender of record in two Stanley Cup-clinching victories and had pushed a netminder nearly a decade his senior with almost 10 times the experience out of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top job. So, to say Murray has risen to the occasion early in his career would be an understatement.
Never has Murray faced pressure quite like this, though.
On Monday, after three subpar outings, the Penguins announced that Murray’s backup, Antti Niemi, has been placed on waivers and it would appear that the Finnish netminder’s time is up in Pittsburgh about as quickly as it began. Now, that’s not altogether surprising considering Niemi’s stat line as a Penguin – which spans a grand total of 128 minutes – leaves much to be desired. He allowed 16 goals on 79 shots, was yanked in his first start after allowing four goals on 13 shots and was dismantled by the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday to the tune of seven goals on 32 shots. Niemi has an ugly .797 save percentage, his goals-against average is 7.49 and he’s done little in the way of offering relief as a second-string netminder. And that means Murray, for the first time in his NHL career, is really left to go at this thing alone.
Coming into the season, Murray was unmistakably the Penguins’ No. 1 netminder. In fact, he had the spot locked down from the very moment Marc-Andre Fleury agreed to waive his no-movement clause in order to wind up with the Vegas Golden Knights by way of the expansion draft. But what Niemi represented was a safety net for Murray, something that has been a constant for the 23-year-old through the early part of his career.
While there are few ways to compare Fleury and Niemi, who have vastly different numbers over the past few seasons and whose roles are very clearly different at this juncture of their respective careers, the one thing the two goaltenders had in common was their recent role in Pittsburgh. Fleury's purpose with the Penguins last season was to support Murray, be his injury replacement, spell him when necessary and give Pittsburgh the confidence that comes with a veteran backup. Likewise, that’s why Niemi was brought aboard, and it wasn’t without reason.
Not only is this Murray’s first full season as the Penguins’ go-to guy — which comes with its own set of pressures, in and of itself — but it’s a year in which Pittsburgh faces some hefty expectations. The Penguins are chasing down a third straight Stanley Cup and some expect them to be in the thick of things come May and June, all the while Pittsburgh is battling it out in one of the league’s toughest divisions while playing arguably the toughest schedule in the league. Nineteen times this season the Penguins will play on back-to-back nights. There’s no team that will do so more. A reliable backup can be a lifesaver in such a situation, and it can certainly save some added miles on a starting netminder.
The best-case scenario, of course, would see Murray split those back-to-backs with another goalie. Last season, that meant sharing them with Fleury when possible. This season, though, it’s hard to say what the Penguins will do. The organization’s confidence in Niemi appears shot, meaning that backup duties will likely fall to 22-year-old Tristan Jarry, who has all of one game of NHL experience, or 26-year-old Casey DeSmith, who has spent the past three seasons in the Penguins’ minor league system but never seen NHL action. The tandem is coming off a Harry Holmes Memorial Award in the AHL last season, handed out annually to the minor league’s best goaltending duo. That doesn’t necessarily mean a thing for either goalie's ability at the big-league level, however. So, despite both having solid numbers in the AHL, one has to wonder if there’s enough faith in either to carry the weight of the starting job on more than a dozen nights this season. If that’s not the case, will it be expected that Murray undertakes a Cam Talbot-esque workload and plays 70-plus games for the Penguins? And, if that is what coach Mike Sullivan asks of Murray, can he shoulder it?
Make no mistake, it goes beyond the mental aspect of handling starting duty upwards of 70 nights a season, too. Murray has been tested through tough post-season runs twice over and he’s proven his fortitude. But there’s a physical aspect that comes into play and Murray hasn’t exactly been the picture of health through the early part of his career. He appeared in 62 games across his first two seasons in the NHL, but he’s also been on the shelf for 21 and that has to be concerning for both Murray and the Penguins. If he goes down now, there’s no Fleury to take over. Instead, it will fall on Niemi, Jarry and/or DeSmith to pick up the pieces, not an ideal situation given how important Fleury was to the Penguins’ success in the regular season and playoffs.
But with Niemi waived and no clear successor to the backup job, this is the reality now for Murray and the Penguins, and this is the netminder’s chance to embrace it. There are no safety nets. There is no second-stringer for Pittsburgh to lean on. It’s Murray and Murray alone who will be tasked with taking this team back to the promised land. He hasn’t burst out of the gate this season — his 3.35 goals-against average and .896 save percentage are uncharacteristically poor given his track record — but with all of the Penguins’ eggs so clearly in one basket, the time is now for Murray to not only prove he’s a true-blue No. 1, but prove his worth as a workhorse.
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