By rights, this series should be over. Should have been over in four or five games, really. The Penguins should have had their parade, should have doused each other in champagne and beer, should have put the San Jose Sharks out of their misery.
The reason they haven’t is, ironically enough, one of the biggest reasons they are one win away from a Stanley Cup: Matt Murray.
There is no getting around it; Joel Ward’s soft goal in game three changed the complexion of that contest and afforded the Sharks a chance to win a game that they may well not have had otherwise, and Murray’s miserable first period in game five put the Penguins at a disadvantage that they could not overcome, despite territorial dominance that has been their staple for the entirety of the post-season.
Murray has been at times spectacular in these playoffs, especially Game 3 against the Washington Capitals, where he flat out stole a win that may have decided the series. Mostly, though, he has been steady, insulated from the opposition because of the Penguins’ withering offensive prowess and ability to keep the puck out of their own end for long stretches.
He has not been the better goalie in this series, just as he was not the better goalie against Tampa Bay. He has been good, but it is the 18 skaters ahead of him who have made the difference. These Penguins resemble, in many ways, the 2008 Detroit Red Wings, an absolutely dominant bunch backstopped by a perfectly acceptable goalie in the form of Chris Osgood.
His .923 save percentage in these playoffs is a very solid number, and his work in games after he has lost nothing short of superb, with his numbers gaudy and the Penguins undefeated in such scenarios.
Still, the good is counterbalanced by some frustrating bad. Murray has been beaten twice in this series on weak wraparound goals, where he has been deep in his net and unable to stop an opponent from scoring from a sharp angle. He has seen a few pucks flutter through him, or just flat out go by him. For all his good, there have been some cracks.
A pessimist would see all that and assume that eventually, Murray is going to lose back-to-back games, and that if that happens tonight, the Penguins will be in a stomach-churning game seven, a crucible that, by rights, they shouldn’t have to endure.
Me? I see a goalie who is ready to have perhaps his signature performance of these playoffs. Murray’s refusal to dwell on his bad goals or shaky performances is the perfect goalie mentality. He praised his own play over the final 45 minutes of game five, which probably isn’t what fans necessarily wanted to hear, but is heartening nonetheless.
It is clear from his comments that Murray is a supremely confident player, exceptionally so considering his youth and rookie status. Though it may be cathartic for fans to hear a player as despondent and frustrated as they are after a loss, it does that player no good to linger on mistakes. Murray seems utterly unconcerned when things don’t go his way, and to a man, his teammates have backed him at all times.
He needs to be better in the areas where he is known to be weak. Hopefully Murray and goalie coach Mike Bales have been working on wraparound plays, and on defending plays from behind the net. Hopefully there are no leaky plays, no goals gifted to the Sharks. Hopefully, they have to earn whatever they get.
The bet here is that Murray, as he has after every one of his prior losses in this post-season, will answer the bell emphatically. His team is superior, and in Game 6, he’ll match or exceed their performance.
Don’t fret about a Game 7. The Penguins’ skaters have been spectacular for the past two months. Tonight in San Jose, their goalie will be as well, and the Stanley Cup will come back to Pittsburgh, as property of the Pens.