No surprise! Murray back among elite
Goaltending coach sees nothing different in top netminder; other factors are the key
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.”
Penguins goaltender Matt Murray has won all nine of his starts since returning from an injury.