No sur­prise! Mur­ray back among elite

Goal­tend­ing coach sees noth­ing dif­fer­ent in top net­min­der; other fac­tors are the key

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Sports - ja­son mackey

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Mike Buck­ley knows Matt Mur­ray ex­tremely well, prob­a­bly bet­ter than any­one within the Pen­guins or­ga­ni­za­tion.

When Mur­ray was a prospect, Buck­ley rou­tinely would travel to Sault Ste. Marie, On­tario, where Mur­ray played ju­nior hockey, and the two would share seafood lunches, chat­ting about goal­tend­ing, Mur­ray’s ca­reer and one day be­com­ing the Pen­guins go-to guy.

It was ac­tu­ally Buck­ley — who re­placed Mike Bales as goal­tend­ing coach in June 2017 in large part due to this tight-knit bond — who first in­tro­duced Mur­ray to the men­tal side of the game.

So, as Mur­ray has re­turned from in­jury with a vengeance, win­ning all nine of his starts and post­ing some crazy num­bers — a 1.55 goals-against av­er­age, .953 save per­cent­age and two shutouts — clearly Buck­ley has seen some­thing dif­fer­ent out of the Pen­guins fran­chise net­min­der.

OK, or not.

“I don’t no­tice any dif­fer­ence in him,” Buck­ley said. “He’s still go­ing about his busi­ness the same way, work­ing hard.”

While Buck­ley has not see a change in Mur­ray’s men­tal­ity — still metro­nomic and for­ward-fo­cused — he does see three key rea­sons for the goal­tender’s turn­around.

The first Buck­ley cited is prob­a­bly the most sim­ple: The Pen­guins are play­ing a much more re­spon­si­ble brand of hockey in front of Mur­ray.

They’re killing penal­ties. They’re de­fend­ing. Their de­fense pairs have so­lid­i­fied. More goals are com­ing from more sources.

As a re­sult, Mur­ray has been able to take a few more chances, know­ing that, if some­thing does go awry, that mis­take won’t cost the Pen­guins the game. He also is not get­ting hung out to dry nearly as much, as the Pen­guins have ad­justed their ap­proach to al­low fewer odd­man rushes.

“I think first and fore­most, we’ve tight­ened things up de­fen­sively,” Buck­ley said. “It goes hand in hand. When you pro­vide your goalie with sup­port, he pro­vides you with sup­port. Con­fi­dence grows from there. You be­gin to trust each other a lot more.

“It al­lows your goalie to play a lit­tle bit more freely, with a lot more con­fi­dence.”

The num­bers cer­tainly back that up. Be­fore he was hurt, Mur­ray faced an av­er­age shot dis­tance five-on-five of 34.98 feet. Since he re­turned, the op­pos­ing team has been pushed to the out­side in a sig­nif­i­cant way, with an av­er­age five-on-five shot dis­tance of 36.93.

The av­er­age dis­tance of op­po­nents’ goals also has un­der­gone a huge change, al­though there have been so few that the sam­ple size might ac­tu­ally be too small to ac­cu­rately an­a­lyze. It went from 23.58 be­fore to 39.75 after his in­jury.

That doesn’t seem to mat­ter much to Mur­ray, though. If it does, he has no in­ter­est in talk­ing about it.

The key, Mur­ray said, has been tun­ing out the noise — the score, sit­u­a­tion, what he’s fac­ing, from where. All of the things he can do ab­so­lutely noth­ing about.

“I can’t con­trol the re­sult,” Mur­ray said. “I can’t con­trol what hap­pens dur­ing the game. I can only con­trol my prepa­ra­tion and how hard I com­pete. That’s all I’m try­ing to do.”

The sec­ond thing Buck­ley has seen doesn’t deal di­rectly with Mur­ray, al­though it has had a siz­able ef­fect on him.

Casey DeSmith has en­joyed a break­out year in 201819, win­ning 12 of his 23 starts and rank­ing 13th among qual­i­fy­ing goal­tenders in goals-against av­er­age (2.53) and tied for eighth in save per­cent­age (.921) en­ter­ing Sun­day.

Pre­vi­ously, when the Pen­guins strug­gled to get con­sis­tent pro­duc­tion from their backup goal­tender, it wore on Mur­ray, who felt he had to do ev­ery­thing. That’s not the case now, Buck­ley said.

“I think the emer­gence of Casey has been re­ally good for Matt,” Buck­ley said. “It takes a lot of the pres­sure off him, know­ing that he doesn’t have to play and win ev­ery sin­gle game.

“As a young goalie be­com­ing a starter, that’s kind of a big thing. You want to play ev­ery game. You want to be the guy. But to have some­one who can step in and also help out, that’s huge. That takes a lot of pres­sure off of him.”

The third thing Buck­ley cited is the “com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment” cre­ated by DeSmith’s emer­gence.

Like two start­ing pitch­ers in base­ball, Mur­ray and DeSmith are cer­tainly friendly — it’s pretty much against the law to dis­like an­other mem­ber of the goal­tend­ing fra­ter­nity — but they do want to one-up each other ev­ery start.

“That has also con­trib­uted to it,” Buck­ley said.

Buck­ley, of course, isn’t the only per­son around the Pen­guins who has an opin­ion on what Mur­ray has done well. In coach Mike Sul­li­van’s mind, Mur­ray has once again had “a set­tling ef­fect” on the Pen­guins.

“He makes big saves at key times to help our team stay in games or keep a lead or what­ever it may be,” Sul­li­van said.

The Pen­guins have their own met­rics for this sort of thing, but ex­ter­nally, the best way of quan­ti­fy­ing it is high-dan­ger save per­cent­age.

Five-on-five since Mur­ray re­turned, he’s at .879, fourth among net­min­ders who’ve logged at least 300 min­utes.

Be­fore leav­ing the Pen­guins lineup with a lower­body in­jury, only Flor­ida’s Roberto Luongo (.745) posted a lower high-dan­ger save per­cent­age five-on-five than Mur­ray’s .750.

“Timely saves are so im­por­tant to help­ing teams have suc­cess,” Sul­li­van said. “It’s hard to win with­out it. Matt has done that for us time and time again.

“Cer­tainly right now I think we’re see­ing vin­tage Matt Mur­ray. This is the guy we all know. He’s a very good goalie when he’s on his game. Since he’s come off this in­jury, he’s been locked in.”

Peter Di­ana/Post-Gazette

Pen­guins goal­tender Matt Mur­ray has won all nine of his starts since re­turn­ing from an in­jury.

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