Matt Murray's Focus is on the Journey, Not the Destination
The Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender already has his name on the Stanley Cup — twice. Matt Murray may be a champion, but he’s still working diligently to improve his game.
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M att Murray doesn't know where he’s headed, but he couldn’t be more certain how he will get there.
His approach, as much as his ability, has led the Penguins’ 23-year-old, two-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender to the rarified territory he occupies among the NHL’s netminders. Murray’s advanced understanding of the game has made the difference at each step of his young career.
Yet despite all that success, Murray displays a desire to grow — to hone the skills that already took him to the promised land.
“It’s just about trying to make your job as easy as possible, fundamentals-wise,” Murray explains. “Every time a goal goes in, I know exactly what I should have done better and what I could have done better. There’s an answer to everything. That’s kind of how I like to approach it.”
Murray has worn this philosophy throughout his journey to Pittsburgh — from growing up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, to his junior hockey days with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, to the American Hockey League’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, to a couple of championship parades down Grant Street.
That calculated, analytical approach accompanies Murray’s determination to compartmentalize in-game occurrences good and bad with a demeanor that Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan recognizes as “stoic” — factors that have conspired to make Murray unbeatable when it matters in his brief-but-decorated NHL tenure.
So far, at least.
“There’s lots of evidence to this point to suggest that he’s a mentally tough and mentally strong kid,” Sullivan says.
Anyone looking for that evidence need gaze no farther than the rafters at PPG Paints Arena, where the two most recent additions to the collection of championship banners qualify as exhibits A and B.
Because Murray only played in 13 regular-season games as a rookie — when that first banner was earned in 2015-16 — he was still considered a rookie in 2016-17, when the Penguins successfully defended their championship and secured the second.
That made Murray the first rookie goalie in NHL history to win two Stanley Cups.
In addition to being mentally tough, Murray is statistically in a class by himself.
Game photos courtesy pittsburgh penguins
In July 2015, Murray was a 21-year-old former third-round draft pick of the Penguins who had yet to appear in an NHL uniform.
He was coming off a game-changing season in the AHL. In the 2014-15 season, Murray led hockey’s top minor league in goals-against average (1.58), save percentage (.941) and shutouts (12) while posting a record of 25-10-3 in 40 regular-season games. Murray’s perception-altering campaign included an AHL-record shutout streak; for more than 304 minutes of ice time (in excess of five full games), Murray did not allow a goal. He was named the AHL Goaltender of the Year and Rookie of the Year.
Suddenly, he was on the Penguins’ radar — but there was work yet to be done.
Murray mapped out in detail what he needed to achieve during the Penguins’ development camp that summer. His perspective as he entered camp: “I know for sure if I’m going to make the jump it’s going to be because my play-reading ability is going to have to be a lot better.”
In junior hockey, Murray acknowledges, his height — he stands 6 foot 4 inches — brought him success. At the AHL level, he thrived after a realization: He’d have to come further out of his net and cut down angles against professional shooters that might otherwise pick him apart.
The last step, Murray was convinced, would be anticipation.
“I study a lot of goalies in the NHL right now,” Murray said at the time. “I watch a lot of film on YouTube and stuff. That’s kind of the biggest thing I notice, they’re almost moving into the play before it happens. They kind of see the play before it happens and know what the [attacking] player is going to do even before he does.”
The Penguins had brought him to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to join their farm team following his last junior season. And while the AHL Penguins worked on a run that took them to the conference semifinals, goaltending guru Mike Buckley worked to get Murray to play a more professional game.
“He wasn’t worried about playing in games, so making changes at that time was perfect,” says Buckley, then the Penguins’ goaltending development coach and now the goaltending coach at the NHL level.
Buckley sold Murray on his cause-and-effect theory of puck-stopping.
“When you’re more aggressive, you’re at cause,” Buckley explains. “When you’re deep in the net, you’re at effect. When you’re at cause, shooters come down, they don’t see much net, they tense up, they tighten up, they’re less likely to score or they’re more likely to flat-out miss the net, so you’re in control.
“That was a big boost to his confidence, understanding, ‘Wow, if I step out [of the crease], I have control now. I can dictate what these players are doing.’”
He made his NHL debut on Dec. 19, 2015, the first of four games he’d play for the Penguins that December. Murray eventually went back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton but returned to the Pens two months later; he wound up playing nine games in March and April, including the last five of the regular season, after Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a concussion.
Murray suffered a concussion of his own in the regular-season finale at Philadelphia; the team turned to goaltender Jeff Zatkoff in Games 1 and 2 of the first round against the Rangers. Murray returned for Game 3 — and went on to win 15 of 21 postseason starts while backstopping the Pens to the Cup.
Defenseman Ian Cole marveled at Murray’s signature steadiness after the Pens’ 4-1 victory over Nashville in Game 2 of last season’s Stanley Cup Final.
“He’s just such a calming presence back there,” Cole said that night. “He never gets rattled. A goal goes in, and he can play the exact same way right after that — which is hard for any goalie to do, but especially one that’s still really quite young ... I think the guys feed off that calmness and that confidence that he has.”
Sullivan does, too.
“Part of it is his demeanor,” says Sullivan, who coached Murray in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before beating him to Pittsburgh by only a week; Sullivan was named head coach of the Penguins on Dec. 12, 2015. “He has a very stoic approach. When I say that, I speak to how he handles the adversities, the challenges. If he lets in a bad goal or things don’t go his way, he responds the right way to those situations.
“And then part of it is his style of play. For a goaltender, he reads plays extremely well. He has a high hockey IQ. His anticipation skills are extremely strong. He has an economy of motion about him. He’s never making flailing saves. The puck just seems to hit him because he’s in the right place at the right time, and that goes back to his ability to read plays. He can anticipate, get to spots, square up to the puck — and he makes difficult saves sometimes look routine.”
Buckley agrees, saying that he considers Murray’s “mental component” to be his “biggest strength.”
“He’s definitely mature beyond his years,” Sullivan adds. “Just being around him for a week or so and watching how he carried himself, that’s when it jumped out at me. It’s more in the subtleties, how he carries himself in the locker room and how he carries himself on the ice, his approach to the game every day.”