Thursday, June 01, 2017

Mike Sullivan's move to unflappable Matt Murray has elevated Penguins' game

, USA TODAY Sports
June 1, 2017

Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins makes a save against Viktor Arvidsson #38 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)

PITTSBURGH — It wasn’t what Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said between periods that made the difference in Wednesday’s series-turning 4-1 win against the Nashville Predators in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.

It was what Sullivan did 12 days before.

That’s when he announced that Matt Murray would once again be the team’s starting goalie. Since then, the Penguins are 5-1. Since then, they have looked more dangerous. Since then, they have moved within two wins of becoming the first team in 19 years to repeat as Stanley Cup championships.

Nothing was wrong with the way Marc-Andre Fleury was playing in net, but it seems clear that Sullivan believed the team would perform better with Murray reinserted as the team's No. 1 goalie. He was right.

It’s about Murray’s unflappable demeanor. This is the Stanley Cup Final, and Murray acts as if he’s stopping shots out on the pond.

“He’s so mature, so poised,” Pittsburgh defenseman Ian Cole said.

The reporting of Game 2 will center on Jake Guentzel spearheading a third-period goal explosion to give the Penguins a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. The Penguins have now scored nine goals, including one empty-netter, in the first two games. It's Penguins' tradition to score goals in bunches. It's who they are. It has been since the days when Mario Lemieux was a player, not the owner.

But it was Murray’s 37 saves that set the stage for Guentzel’s heroics. The Penguins have given up 10 goals in six games since Murray regained the starting job.

Players always say they play the same, regardless of who is in the net. But that's untrue. Unquestionably, the Penguins believed in Fleury. He’s a popular guy. But they are different with Murray in net.

Are they more confident? Do they have a more pronounced swagger? You can call it whatever you want, but they seem to have more flair when Murray is covering their rear.

“He never gets rattled,” Cole said. “He’s mature beyond his years.”

Murray is only 23, and yet it seems as if he’s already unlocked the secret of goaltending.

“It doesn’t matter if we are up or down, my job doesn’t change,” he said. “My job is to stop the puck... That's my mindset."

He is now 20-7 in his first 28 playoff appearances, and his numbers this postseason (1.54 goals-against average, .943 save percentage) are better than the statistics he had last season (2.08, .923) on Pittsburgh's championship team. According to Elias, only two goalies have gotten to 20 wins in the playoffs quicker -- Bill Durnan (26 games) and Patrick Roy (27).

Murray’s strong play has been made more valuable by the reality that Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne hasn’t looked invincible as he did earlier in the postseason.

“Pekka has been terrific through this entire playoffs,” Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. “There are things we can do better. All three goals in the third period, we could have done something better. We’re leaving them odd-man rushes … making it more difficult.”

All of that is true. But it’s also true that Rinne let goals leak through him in each of the first two games.

This series is far from over. The Predators have showed themselves to be resilient in this postseason. But with Murray playing as sharply as he is, Rinne needs to be dominant again, and Nashville’s defensive coverage needs to be tighter, or this series will be shorter than anyone expected.

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