June 1, 2017
Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins makes a save on Roman Josi #59 of the Nashville Predators in Game Two of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at PPG Paints Arena on May 31, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/NHLI via Getty Images)
NASHVILLE — It was a strange text. Then again, it had been a strange game.
Long after the Pittsburgh Penguins somehow walked away with a 5-3 win in a game where they managed just 12 shots, Matt Murray looked at his phone to discover his old goalie coach had sent him a congratulatory message.
“I’m calling that The Willy Wonka wild, weird wacky, winnny, wonderful, way to win,” texted Rick Evoy, who coached Murray from the ages of 11 to 15 in Thunder Bay, Ont.
If it was a weird way for Murray to win, it was a woeful way for Pekka Rinne to lose. It got even worse in Game 2 on Wednesday, when the Nashville Predators goalie was pulled after allowing four goals on 25 shots in a 4-1 loss.
Two games into the Stanley Cup final, a goalie who had been one of the favourites to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP has a .778 save percentage and is shouldering most of the blame for why the Penguins — and not the Predators, who have been the better team — are two wins away from repeating as champions.
Murray, meanwhile, is simply doing what he did at this time last year: playing beyond his years.
The Penguins goalie is not a veteran like Rinne. As someone who was eligible for the Calder Trophy this year, he might not even really be considered established.
But Murray, who has already won a Stanley Cup and is two wins away from winning another, has experience. A lot of it. Certainly, he has more than a 23-year-old should have.
And so far, his playoff experience might be the difference between him and Rinne, a first-time Cup finalist who is playing more like a rookie than a 34-year-old vet.
“The playoffs are such a different animal,” Murray told Postmedia in March. “The challenges you go through in the playoffs are completely different than what you go through in the regular season. It’s hard to describe, and I didn’t know what the differences were — and I still don’t, because I’m going through it now — but it’s just different.”
For Rinne, the final has been a different kind of learning experience. This is not only his first appearance in the final, but also the first time he reached the final four. The pressure has mounted with each round. And while Rinne had been more than solid for the first three rounds, posting a 1.70 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage, he has been a different goalie since then.
The stage looked too big for Rinne in Game 2, when he bobbled a pair of rebounds on Pittsburgh’s first two goals. Murray, meanwhile, looks like he’s barely breaking a sweat.
We said this last year when a goalie with just 13 games under his belt in the regular season came out of nowhere and outperformed Braden Holtby and Martin Jones. And since Murray returned from injury and replaced Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final, we’re saying it again.
With a 1.54 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage, Murray’s been the best goalie in the playoffs. Heading into Game 3, it’s not even close anymore.
“For me, it’s fun to watch, of course,” said Evoy. “I’ve always said he is going to be one of the most boring goalies you’re going to watch, because he’s always in position and no save really looks like a good save.”
Rinne, on the other hand, has been needlessly putting himself out of position. He’s chasing the play, rather than letting pucks hit him. The way that he has given up rebounds, his pads might as well be made of rubber.
It looks like the Penguins are inside his head. At the very least, the number of goals he has allowed has caused some to question whether backup goalie Juuse Saros, who is one year younger than Murray, should start in Game 3.
Predators head coach Peter Laviolette would not announce who will be in net on Saturday, but it’s likely going to be Rinne. After all, he got the team further than it had previously gone in its 19-year existence. And his 7-1 record (.947 save percentage) at home this postseason — he is also 3-0 with a .949 save percentage in Game 3s — makes it an easy decision with the game being played in Nashville.
But after two bad games, you can expect the leash on Rinne will be what former NHL coach Ron Wilson used to characterize as “Chihuahua short.”
As for Murray, there are no doubts he will give Pittsburgh a chance to win. With every save and with every win, he’s looking less and less like some one-year wonder, but rather a goalie who is up there with Carey Price, Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist.
Heck, two wins away from winning his second straight Stanley Cup, he might even be better already.
“He’s going to make some noise in the records, for sure,” said Evoy. “I think by the end of it, he’s going to be up in that area (with the best). He’s up with there (Patrick) Roy now already, with 20 (playoff) wins as a rookie.
“And it’s just starting. Where is it all going to end?”