Kovacevic: Best Murray rises up at best time


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Matt Murray sticks the puck away from the Stars' Andrew Cogliano Saturday night in Dallas. - AP

DALLAS -- Jared McCann was still strapped into his skates several minutes after the Penguins had set down the Stars, 3-2, Saturday night at American Airlines Center, but that wasn't about to stop him.

He'd just finished a wave of interviews about his game-winning, short-handed, beyond-belief goal ...

... and he apparently wasn't done. As I'd begun to drift back from the pack, seeking out my next conversation, he bounded forward across the floor on those blades to make sure he had my full attention.

"That guy," McCann would tell me, pointing toward the corner stall of an unsuspecting Matt Murray. "I hated playing against him. But man, I love playing with him. Write that down for me, will you?"

Consider it done.

And from there, consider it the least of the compliments Murray merited after his finest performance of the season and, if I'm being candid, one of the finest I've covered in my career.

Forget the pedestrian sum of 29 saves. Forget even that this desperate Dallas outfit delivered an incredible ratio of 17 official high-danger chances among those 31 shots.

Watch. Just watch:

And that's only a half-dozen of them. It went on like that all evening long, one wave after the next, pucks and bodies and odd-man breaks. The two goals he did gave up were a one-timer by one of the game's premier snipers, Tyler Seguin, and a wrister that leaped up off teammate Erik Gudbranson's blade.

"He was ..." Gudbranson would say, interrupted by the shake of his own head, "... I don't even know what to say."

"Crazy," Teddy Blueger would tell me. "It was crazy."

"He's sick," McCann assessed with his own head shake. "You know, I don't feel like he gets the recognition he deserves sometimes. I've known about it for quite a few years now, even in the Soo, and he's going to be one of the best goalies in this league for years to come."

It's a long way from the shared days of Murray and McCann with Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL, to what Murray's already achieved at the very highest level of the sport. But it's also been a long way, in a different context, from Murray's year-plus search for consistency to what we're witnessing now.

This is the past month:

And in the past week, while the skaters in front of him have graced him with eight whole goals over four games, all he's done is stop 130 of 137 shots for a .949 save percentage that doesn't even account for a 3-for-3 showing in the shootout Thursday night in Nashville.

To put that into further perspective, the Penguins scored eight times, Murray gave up seven, and they've emerged from the week 2-0-2 for six points that suddenly have them one behind the Capitals for first place in the Metro.

Lingering questions, anyone?

There sure aren't with Mike Sullivan, I can assure. Not anymore, at least. If one read between his lines through the better part of the winter, he'd often praise Casey DeSmith for his 'compete level' and for 'giving us a chance to win,' and he did so in a way that left some license for interpretation as to what that meant about Murray. These days, there's no need to read between anything, with Murray having started 14 of the past 15 games, back-to-backs, long trips, whatever's been at hand.

As for that 'compete level,' I brought that up with Sullivan after this one.

"I think Matt's playing his best hockey of the year," he replied. "There's no doubt. I can just see it in his body language from the bench. He's big as a house. You don't see any net. He's reading plays well. He's anticipating. He's squaring up to the puck. His rebound control is terrific. And yeah, he's competing. He's competing hard. And when he's playing like this, he's one of the top goaltenders in the league."

This will surprise no one who's followed Murray's career, but his mood was little different after this than pretty much any other game:

Which is fine, because there was a lot more flowing all around him. None, I thought, more powerful than a bigger-pictured assessment from Jack Johnson.

"He was awesome, awesome," Johnson began. "The one thing you always have, with any of the top teams in this league, is great goaltending. If you don't have that, you don't have a chance. It doesn't matter, truthfully, how good the rest of the team is. Not when you're playing for something bigger."

Bigger, as in ...

"The whole thing. And we've got one of the best. Truthfully, I couldn't think of another guy I'd rather have back there."


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My curtain calls go to …

1. Matt Murray
Penguins goaltender

I mean ... wow.

2. Jared McCann
Penguins left winger

Two goals, one for the ages.

3. Teddy Blueger
Penguins center

Gorgeous assist on that one for the ages, maybe a cemented roster spot, too.


The second line made an impact.

That could get lost here, but it shouldn't, as the Penguins' lone remaining ail of late has been secondary scoring, especially at even-strength. If it hasn't been Sidney Crosby's line, it hasn't been anyone.

So when Phil Kessel made this smart intercept of Roman Polak's pass behind the Dallas net and sharply fed McCann for his first goal ...

... it ideally represented the restart of actual contributions from other lines.

"Phil did a real nice job on the forecheck, picks the pass off," Sullivan brought up unsolicited. "He made a real nice play."

Much more is needed. Second line, third line and fourth line. There's a strong belief in that room that a lot of this is on the verge of busting open, but sooner would be ideal with six games left and playoff seeding well underway.


All. Those. Chances.

The Stars are top-heavy with talent, but they've got enough of those guys that they're capable of ringing a goaltender's ears against most opponents. There isn't much shame in conceding chances to Seguin, Jamie Benn and that hyper-spastic version of Alexander Radulov seen on this night.

But two nights after what had been among the Penguins' most encouraging defensive performances all season, the silent-by-comparison 2-1 shootout victory in Nashville, this was a significant disappointment.

Sullivan downplayed that facet, attributing it to "playoff-style hockey," given the energy and urgency brought from both ends, and that's smart. The players were stoked about the outcome, and nobody appreciates a wet blanket. But be sure it'll come up before faceoff Monday in Manhattan.


What else?

A full Drive to the Net does it right.


No real controversy in this one. Gudbranson had a goal waved off in the second period because Blueger was whistled for interference, but it was absolutely the right call on the ice, the right uphold on replay and, candidly, kind of a curious challenge by Sullivan.

[caption id="attachment_796146" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Jake Guentzel beats the Stars' Anton Khudobin on the power play Saturday night. - AP[/caption]


Well, what did anyone expect the Stars to say?

"We had a lot of chances to score," the coach, Jim Montgomery, said. "It's a little bit of everything."

"If you look at how we play, we're playing pretty good," John Klingberg, their graceful-skating defenseman, said. "I think we're on the same page. We just can’t really execute offensively right now."

Mentions of Murray were scant, maybe because the Stars just completed 1-3-1 homestand that left them hovering in the West's top wild card spot, just three points up on Rick Tocchet's dogged Coyotes. Or maybe it's because, in that homestand, they, like the Penguins of late, have run into their share of above-average goaltending and just got sick of discussing it.

Amusingly, Murray wasn't even named one of the game's official three stars by Dallas personnel, those going, in order, to McCann, Kessel and Radulov.


• It's not exactly a streak, but it's something: The Penguins have picked up points in 17 of their past 21 games, going 13-4-4 in that span. On the road, they're on a 7-1-3 roll.

• Naturally, on the day I write about Guentzel's proficiency at five-on-five, he scores his sixth power-play goal of the season ...

... and can't finish any of the three golden chances he had at even-strength. Regardless, his scoring 31 of his 38 goals at even-strength remains currently the highest percentage — 81.6 — in franchise history for a single season in which a player had at least 30 even-strength goals. Credit our lead copy editor, Bob Maddamma, with the research.

Guentzel has collected 9-6—15 in 13 contests since March 1, for an average of 1.15 points per game – in line with his career average of 1.14 points per game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs (23-19—42 in 37 GP).

• The Penguins have killed 11 consecutive penalties over the past four games, 16 in a row over the past six road games.

• The shorty was the first the Stars allowed all season, exempting an empty-netter Jan. 6 in Winnipeg.

Marcus Pettersson's 60.00 Corsi For percentage was the highest of any defenseman on either side. He also attempted five shots, blocked one, threw two hits and was credited with a takeaway.

Adam Johnson, maybe the slightest player at any level of the system, made his presence known with a team-high four hits and a blocked shot on just eight shifts.


 Evgeni Malkin, center, missed his fourth game with an apparent rib injury and is expected to miss another week or so. Sullivan had no update on his status, but a source told our site he was skating Saturday in Cranberry.

 Olli Maatta, defenseman, has been out since Feb. 11 with a separated left shoulder. He took part in the morning skate Saturday and appears close to returning.

• Zach Aston-Reese, forward, missed his seventh game with a hip injury and is considered to be out longer-term.

• Chad Ruhwedel, defenseman, missed his 13th game with an upper-body injury and is considered to be out longer-term.


Sullivan’s lines and pairings:

A. Johnson-Cullen-Wilson

J. Johnson-Schultz 

• And for Montgomery's Stars:




The Penguins are formally off Sunday, flying to New York to complete this four-game trip against the Rangers. Chris Bradford will cover. I'm heading deeper into the heart of Texas to cover baseball.


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