Drive to the Net: Last comeback? Murray, Penguins can hope

Everybody loves a comeback story and Matt Murray has authored a few, but here’s hoping that this will be the last for the Penguins goalie.

The puck gets behind Matt Murray but not in the net. - AP

NEW YORK — Everybody loves a good comeback, Pittsburghers perhaps more than most.

There is just something about seeing an athlete, no matter how great or how big or strong, have to overcome some obstacle. Hell, Mario Lemieux practically made it an art form. They pull at the heartstrings and, quite frankly, they make the job easier for people in my line of work.

The thing with comebacks, though, is that they are almost always the product of injury, tragedy or some sort of adversity and, quite often, through no fault of anyone.

Such is the case with Matt Murray, who can, unfortunately, check off more of those boxes than he or the Penguins would care to in his first three NHL seasons.

If you’re keeping track of these things, Murray’s start in net for Tuesday night’s 4-1 loss against the Islanders was his third “comeback” from an extended absence this season alone.

The latest one came after he missed nine games with a concussion that resulted from a slap shot to the head … in practice by a teammate. Yeah, can’t make it up. If  Murray didn’t have bad luck, well, you know…

Before that, he was sidelined two weeks in early December following a fluke knee injury. Then, he missed nearly the entire month of January after his father’s death.

But in each instance Murray has emerged even better and stronger. His laser-like focus through it all this season has been remarkable for someone so young, as Mike Sullivan was telling me before the game:

At just 23 years and 300 days of age, he has done more in his three NHL seasons than 99.99 percent of all goaltenders have done even in great careers. And if he’s to become the first goalie since Billy Smith — the guy whose No. 31 hangs from the rafters at the Barclays Center — to win three straight Cups, he’s going to have to be the guy.

Not Tristan Jarry, not Casey DeSmith. If Murray isn’t healthy and at the top of his game, this exercise that starts in three weeks will be a moot point.

And that’s why I’ll keep Murray’s 36-save performance against the Islanders in perspective. Think bigger picture here. This was only one game in March, a missed opportunity to be sure, but just game No. 73 of what could be 110 or so.

“He made a lot of saves, he made a lot of high quality saves because the quality of chances that we gave up were too high,” was Sullivan’s assessment. 

Indeed, Murray’s teammates had a four-day layoff and played like they hadn’t seen ice in four months. Didn’t exactly help him ease back into the job.

When they weren’t turning the puck over in their zone, they were taking penalties — a lot of them — but mostly they weren’t scoring. One goal isn’t going to win you too many games. Thirty-nine shots, 11 of them coming on Islanders power plays, is a bit exorbitant even in the best of circumstances.

And, truth be told, Murray was a little shaky, though he was a little reluctant to admit it.

“I felt pretty solid considering how much time I missed,” he said afterward. “I didn’t feel all that rusty. I thought I played pretty well and felt pretty good for the most part.”

Murray was tested early, making a nice blocker stop on John Tavares at the doorstep just 34 seconds into the game:

That one was vintage Murray. When he’s at his peak, he makes himself look even bigger than his 6-foot-4, 178-pound frame, takes away the angle and makes it look so damn easy.

Well, there was nothing easy about Murray’s best save. That came with 4:34 left in the third when he made this highlight reel — by his standards or anyone’s — diving stop on presumptive Calder winner Mathew Barzal:

But that stop was an afterthought because just a minute before that, Anders Lee scored a back-breaking power-play goal that Murray would certainly like to have back. Murray left his post just a little, but Lee — the NHL’s ninth-leading goal scorer — roofed a backhander shortside:

It was a disappointing night on many levels, but not for Murray, who probably deserved a better fate than that of his teammates. There will be bigger games and certainly better games for the Penguins’ franchise goalie.

With nine games remaining in the regular season, including one tonight at home against the Canadiens, the Penguins’ top priority is to get Murray back to the level he was pre-concussion, when he won nine of his last 10 starts. It will take more than one game:

If we have learned anything about Murray during his fledgling career, he will get there. But here’s hoping, for Murray’s sake and the Penguins’, that this will be the last “comeback” game for a long, long while.