Penguins

Kovacevic: Murray’s understated, brilliant revival

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Matt Murray makes a save Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Nothing's changed for Matt Murray. And that, if you ask me, is the best part of everything that actually has changed for him.

Know what I mean?

"No," Murray would reply with a small smile when I brought this up. "Not at all."

OK, so maybe it wasn't all that well-worded.

I tried a different route: How about if he'd just tell me, after this latest prodigious performance -- 36 saves, including three clean breaks, in a 5-1 pounding of the Panthers -- if he feels like he's found himself in a good place again?

"I'm just trying to compete out there, man."

Come on. That's his stock answer, as I'd gently chide. There's got to be more.

"No, honestly, that's not stock or standard or anything. That's my mindset."

Shot to shot.

"That's it."

No extrapolating. No momentum being built. Nothing broader.

"That's all you can do, man. Just stop the next shot. Compete as hard as you can to stop the next shot. Each and every shot. Each and every read. One at a time. Keep my team in the game, and give us a chance to win."

Well, with all due respect, that's what's changed.

Before being shelved in mid-November, then missing nearly a month to a groin injury -- and unwisely trying to play through it -- Murray was a shell of his two-time Stanley Cup championship version: 4-5-1 with a 4.07 goals-against average and .877 save percentage.

He was among the NHL's worst goaltenders.

Since returning, he's gone 8-0 with a 1.24 goals-against average and .963 save percentage. In the past seven games alone, he's allowed seven total goals.

He's been the NHL's very best goaltender.

Not coincidentally, since Murray started looking like Murray, and since Casey DeSmith admirably stepped up in his absence and beyond, the Penguins started looking like the Penguins. They've reclaimed that 'swagger' Mike Sullivan was rightly complaining they'd been missing those first two months. They defend with an edge. They attack full-barrel. And on an occasion like this, when the opponent takes 1970s night too literally, they can even tough it out, too.

"I think anytime you're playing hard, you're playing well, when you look back at your goalie and see that he's calm, confident, making that big save when he needs to ... that just kind of radiates from the back out," Bryan Rust told me, almost as deftly as the two slick goals he'd just put up. "That confidence comes from there. It really does. It's an energy-builder."

Of course, when I broached that with Murray ...

"Eh, I don't know about all that," he'd reply with a shrug. "It's about stopping the next shot."

Fine, kid. Have it your way. If it's a shot-by-shot approach, the part of his hockey personality that never changes, that created this, then here's a shot-by-shot analysis to match:

The score finished lopsided, but Florida dictated possession in the first period, particularly in the final dozen minutes. So when Colton Sceviour broke free short-handed, he might have done so with the game on his blade. Bury that, and the Panthers' momentum carries through intermission, maybe further.

As it was, Murray smartly read that Jake Guentzel's backcheck angle would force Sceviour to his backhand, then stayed tall in sliding right along.

"I was just trying to stay with him, keep my blocker as close to him as I possibly could," Murray told me. "I was lucky I got a piece of it."

He wasn't lucky. Not on this one, either:

That was another short-handed break, because, hey, it was another of those nights when the Penguins' power play decided to be dangerous at the wrong end of the rink. This time, it was Jared McCann corralling an Aaron Ekblad saucer and swooping in on Murray, a two-year teammate at Sault Ste. Marie in the Ontario Hockey League. And it was Murray smoothly going full-splits to stunt the backhand try to the far post.

"I had an idea what he'd do," Murray told me. "He used to use that move all the time in practice."

What came next was a move few can execute, in practice or otherwise:

If the NHL has a silkier set of mitts, especially in tight quarters around a crease, than those of Aleksander Barkov, I haven't seen them. He's all that and then some, arguably the league's most underappreciated player.

So, when he tried stickhandling back through his own legs, then shooting through there, Murray followed the puck rather than the form and stayed square for the save.

"That one happened quick, but you expect it with that guy," Murray told me of Barkov. "I was trying to read what he wanted to do, to be honest, but at the end, you've still got to stop the shot."

Yeah, yeah.

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