So much for messing with Matt Murray’s head.
That was the concern, at least in this corner, upon learning the Pittsburgh Penguins would dress their usual starting goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, for Game 3 of the Metro Division semifinal. Fleury hadn’t played since March 31, when he sustained his second concussion of the 2015-16 season. Fleury earned a clean bill of health after missing the Pens’ first seven playoff games, and coach Mike Sullivan dressed Fleury as a backup to Murray Monday night.
There were two risk factors there. For one, was it worth bringing Fleury back if he wasn’t going to start anyway? Why not rest him further in that case? And secondly, what would Fleury’s presence do to Murray’s psyche? It would only be human to look over his shoulder a little bit with the franchise’s all-time wins leader sitting a few dozen feet away in full gear.
But Murray’s response to a potential obstacle was quite decisive and strong: he brought it. Murray, a rookie playing his sixth career post-season game, stopped 47 of 49 Washington Capitals shots, carrying the Penguins to a 3-2 home victory in Game 3. Pittsburgh now leads the series 2-1. Murray faced at least 14 shots in every period, including a whopping 21 in the third, but weathered the storm. He didn’t make any 10-bell saves that will litter highlight reels for weeks to come, but he was consistently solid. He continues to show a knack for tracking the puck in heavy traffic.
Murray showed no signs of someone intimidated by Fleury’s presence and, in hindsight, I should’ve expected nothing less. Murray’s first career post-season start came at Madison Square Garden opposite Henrik Lundqvist, and Murray got a shutout. When I spoke to Penguins GM Jim Rutherford and associate GM Jason Botterill about Murray at different points this season, both stressed Murray’s mental toughness, short memory after goals and exemplary ability to overcome adversity. Murray is the Penguins’ No. 1 prospect in THN Future Watch 2016 for a reason. He will make things interesting for their front office this off-season and beyond. Has he played well enough to make Fleury trade bait?
But that’s a question for another day. The more pressing question: what should we make of Pittsburgh’s victory in Game 3? Do we accept that a win is a win, or should Sullivan be legitimately concerned going forward?
The Capitals dominated the play in Game 3. They outshot the Penguins 49-23 and posted an absurd 85-36 Corsi margin. We can’t simply blame the lopsided numbers on a late-game onslaught, either, as the Caps dominated the chances in the first period, too. Washington captain Alex Ovechkin started the game slowly but was a man on a mission in the third. He finished with a goal, an assist, seven shots and nine hits.
It’s not that one game of Washington dominance should petrify Pittsburgh. The shot attempt margins are actually quite uncharacteristic of this team under Sullivan. The Pens have been the best possession squad in the league other than L.A. They should revert to their tight-checking ways in theory. The bigger problem is personnel. Pittsburgh already lost Olli Maatta, its second-best blueliner, in Game 2 on a hit from Brooks Orpik, and there’s no timetable yet for Maatta’s return. Kris Letang could wind up suspended for a big hit on Marcus Johansson in Game 3. The Pens without their best two D-men against arguably the sport’s most fearsome offensive club does not bode well for Game 4 – and beyond, depending on Maatta and Letang’s availability for the rest of the series. Letang has arguably been their best skater altogether so far in the playoffs. They need him badly.
One game does not make a series, and the Penguins looked great just two nights earlier, but a lot has changed since then. Murray was forced to steal Game 3 and may have to keep playing that way if Pittsburgh enters Game 4 minus its two most important defensemen. This team suddenly looks more defensively vulnerable than it has in months. The Caps are thus far from out of this series.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin