Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Murray comes up large when Penguins need him

May 31, 2016

Penguins goaltender Matt Murray stops the Sharks' Tomas Hertl during the third period. Murray finished with 24 saves. (Philip G. Pavely/Tribune-Review)

Jumbo Joe called Mighty Matt “a big boy.”
Man, did the Penguins' rookie goalie take a big-boy bow on hockey's grand stage on Monday night.
The statistics probably don't tell enough of the story about Matt Murray's brilliance in the Penguins' 3-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks at Consol Energy Center. But with Murray, the statistics almost never nail the narrative.
Which is saying a lot.
After all, through (his first) 16 Stanley Cup playoff games, Murray's goals-against average is 2.20 and he is stopping 92.4 percent of shots faced. Those are Conn Smythe-worthy numbers.
But what's a Smythe without Lord Stanley's Cup? And where would these Penguins be without their rookie goalie?
Not within three victories of claiming the Cup, that's as certain as Murray's unfathomable maturity for a 22-year-old.
He needed to make only 24 saves in Game 1 of the Cup Final. If a similar total is the best the Sharks can do in Game 2 on Wednesday night, the Western Conference champions probably are headed home down a couple of games in the best-of-seven series.
In Game 2, the Sharks likely will look more like they did in the final 40 minutes of Game 1 when they fired 44 shots in the direction of Murray.
The Penguins blocked a good many (14), and their willingness to sacrifice might have forced the Sharks' eight misfires over the final two periods. Still, there was little evidence the Sharks hadn't found a finer form after a plodding first period in the franchise's first Cup Final.
In fact, the Sharks were every bit as dominant in the middle of Game 1 as the Penguins were at the start of it. And while their first goal was no mark against Murray, their second was one even a veteran goalie would have wanted back.
Not that failing to freeze a puck fired by the Sharks' monstrous (and monstrously gifted) defenseman Brent Burns is any easy ask.
Most times, the task seems like an impossibility. If Murray, listed at 6-foot-4, is a “big boy,” as Sharks center Joe Thornton described him, what is the 6-foot-5 Burns?
The Astrodome.
Burns weighs 230 pounds, and his shots tend to carry all of the power that might be expected of a hockey player who looks more like Ben Roethlisberger.
So with little more than two minutes remaining in the second period, when Murray could only deflect Burns' shot with his left pad and kick the rebound to Sharks winger Patrick Marleau, it wasn't the most unexpected of sequences.
Unfortunately, neither was what happened in the ensuing seconds.
Could defenseman Ben Lovejoy have secured the puck and prevented Marleau's wraparound shot? Sure.
However, Murray also could have been quicker across his goal crease to stop the shot from going into the open cage. After it did, it felt as though the Sharks had taken a big bite out of the Penguins.
Also felt like the sports world would learn a lot about Murray.
It's no secret that in America, many sports fans wait until the Cup Final to tune into hockey games on TV. It's as much of a secret as Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill's readiness to run his own NHL club.
After Game 1, which HBK line center Nick Bonino won with a late-regulation goal, Botterill calmly walked toward the Penguins' dressing room. I asked him about Murray's habit of being better after he gets beat.
“I can't speak for what he was like in junior (hockey),” Botterill said, “but from Day 1 in the AHL, that's been his M.O.”
Botterill went on to recall the regular-season home opener of the Penguins' AHL affiliate, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. In that contest against Lehigh Valley, Murray surrendered three goals in the first period. His club notched the next five, but Murray gave up the tying score early in the third period.
But he never allowed Lehigh Valley to pull ahead. That afforded Wilkes-Barre/Scranton an opportunity to win that the AHL's Penguins took advantage of and won on Oct. 9.
Murray was a long way from Mohegan Sun Arena on Monday night.
San Jose's Sharks are big step up in class from Lehigh Valley's Phantoms.
Same story, though.
Against Murray, opponents often score just enough to lose. He has become a young master at the most difficult aspect of his sport's most important position.
Don't give up the next goal.
Murray didn't.
That's the way a big boy plays on any stage.
“It's what he does,” Botterill said.
Rob Rossi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter@RobRossi_Trib.

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