MONTREAL -- "He didn't shoot it," one of the Penguins' veterans observed for me. "He passed it. You see that? He passed it."
He did. Shea Weber passed it.
To fully appreciate how authoritative, how aggressive Matt Murray was in the critical 5-1 crushing of the Canadiens on this Saturday night at Bell Centre, how badly he outperformed Carey Price, the greatest counterpart any current goaltender can encounter, it's first necessary to know the following two things:
1. Mike Sullivan challenged Murray.
He didn't just choose Murray to start on back-to-back nights. He bucked his own written-out script for March, one that had originally called for Murray and Casey DeSmith to split these games in Buffalo and here. And he did so, from what I was told afterward, because the team needed the points, because the opponent is also on the periphery of the East's playoff picture -- they're now clinging to both wild card spots at 77 points each -- and because the counterpart, as everyone in this province knew, would be called upon to start on back-to-back nights himself.
So the coaching staff met late Friday night following the latest softy in the overtime loss in Buffalo -- on the charter flight to Quebec, to be precise -- and made the call. Murray was informed shortly thereafter. Of the assignment and the challenge.
"I went out there and tried to make a difference for this team," Murray would tell me much later. "It feels good that they had the confidence to come right back to me. I just tried to be ready to do my best."
It's about damned time. But more on that in a bit.
2. Weber didn't shoot. He passed it.
A goaltender's going well when he's making saves, and Murray made 36 of those. A goaltender's going really well when he's stuffing breakaways, and Murray quashed two of those, by Max Domi and Paul Byron. And a goaltender's going great when he's fighting through traffic to find pucks or even charging out to swat them away:
But a goaltender's going out of his flipping mind when he's discouraging the game's most feared shooter from shooting, and that happened here.
Oh, Weber would register 13 shot attempts, an amazing figure, but that doesn't tell the tale.
This was late in the second period, Murray moving smoothly left-to-right and standing tall on a patented Weber blast that he'd whack away with his shoulder:
This was 22 seconds later, with Murray moving no less fluidly and Weber misfiring:
After that one, big No. 6 skated slowly back to the Montreal bench, head hanging, and slammed the door behind him.
Which undoubtedly explained why, three minutes later, the man who routinely fires 105-mph bullets instead opted for a cheesy wrister:
And why, in the third period, he did ... whatever the hell this was:
Suffice it to say that, for all else that occurred on this night, not least of which was Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel each putting up four points, this still drew notice on the visitors' side.
"He got tired of shooting on Muzz," the aforementioned veteran continued observing of Weber. "That's what happens. When a goalie is hot, he gets in your head. You stop shooting. You start to pass."
I brought this up with Murray, of course, and he came back with characteristic shrugs and a more politically correct assessment.
"Maybe he was going for tips or redirects after a while," Murray told me. "All I know is that guy can bring it. You really notice when he's out there."
Except when the goaltender is that much more noticeable. Which Murray was on this night. Look again at those Weber sequences above. Look where his skates are in relation to his crease. Look at his shoulders, upright and square to the shooter. Look at ... man, how he's actually playing like the 6-foot-4 goaltender that he is.
"You always want to be aggressive when you can be," Murray would reply to my question on that, still downplaying. "Sometimes you've got to be back a little bit, if there's a pass option. You don't want to just throw caution to the wind. You've got to make a read."
So this wasn't something that came from an extra emphasis on this day, maybe some words of wisdom from Mike Buckley?
"Yeah, but it's also one of the fundamentals of goaltending: Be aggressive. When you can be. So yeah, we talked about it."
Listen to Sullivan when I raised this:
Catch that line about the "challenge?"
Sullivan would elaborate a little on that.
"There was a little more to it," he recalled of the decision. "I've thought this through for a while here, just looking at the schedule and the big picture. We don't ever etch it in stone. The coaching staff, we just discuss the situation, and part of it's just based on our own feeling, where our team is at, where Matt is at. There was a lot more that went into it. But I think it was an important decision for us, and he certainly answered the challenge."
Wow, no, it's critical.
I'll be as blunt as I've been about Murray for weeks now: His peak participation isn't optional. These Penguins won't even qualify for the playoffs, much less do damage, without him. DeSmith's been a fun find as a backup, but he's not winning anyone a Cup. The forwards and even the banged-up defense corps have been faring mostly better of late, but they aren't winning a Cup on their own, either.
This is probably a good place to stop. Murray's had other false alarms over the winter. Maybe this was another.
But if it wasn't, then there's an entirely new dynamic in play.
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