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.
Matt 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.
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.”
Back-to-back championships haven’t changed that — haven’t changed Murray.
Sullivan recognized him as the guy he’d always been at training camp and heading into the 2017-18 season. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey was impressed, upon spending two days with Murray this summer in Thunder Bay, with how unaffected Murray appeared to be by his unprecedented success.
There was no attitude on Murray’s part; no adulation from everyone else.
“Not at all,” Mackey insisted, “almost strikingly so.”
Mackey interviewed Murray in his element, a hillside park in his hometown overlooking Lake Superior — watched him play tennis, work out, eat lunch and otherwise go about a typical off-season day in Thunder Bay.
Mackey saw a guy who likes fashion and also $4 T-shirts purchased in bulk, a guy who is still close with one of his best friends from middle school, a dog lover and a guy who has studied Shakespeare — as well as the career of New Jersey Devils goaltending legend Martin Brodeur.
“I feel like I haven’t really done anything yet,” Murray told Mackey. “I feel like I’m just kind of getting started.” It’s a grasp of perspective that might make a grizzled veteran envious.
“It kind of goes against human nature in some regards,” Murray admits. “It’s difficult at times, especially if you feel like the bounces aren’t going your way or something like that. But at the end of the day, I feel like you’re in control. If you compete and you just worry about doing what you need to do to stop the puck, then the results will take care of themselves. If you let in a bad goal but you made a good play, then there’s no reason not to feel confident.
“It’s not about whether the puck went in or not. It’s about how you felt you played it and what you did. I’ll never let a result dictate how I felt about how I played. I could let in 10 goals and feel really good with my movements and my reads and I’d be happy with that. Consistency-wise, that’s the best way to look at it.
“It’s not about the results. You don’t think about how many goals you let up. It’s about what you’re doing.”
Murray tore a hamstring warming up for Game 1 of the 2017 postseason against Columbus. But when Sullivan looked down the bench three rounds later with the Penguins trailing, 4-0, in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final against Ottawa, Murray responded with a nod. Then he matter-of-factly reclaimed his place in the crease.
“He visualized that becoming a possibility — so when it did become a reality, he was prepared for it,” Buckley says.
Murray closed out the 2017 Stanley Cup Final with back-to-back shutouts of Nashville. That made Murray the fourth goalie in NHL history to close out a Final with consecutive shutouts (and the first in 65 years, since Detroit’s Terry Sawchuk completed the task in 1952).
“A big part of it is I’ve been surrounded with really great people and people that have kind of taught me these mindsets and these mental techniques,” Murray says. “Part of it is, I don’t know, I’ve kind of always been that way. Everybody’s always said I was wise beyond my years, or whatever it may be, that I act older.
“I just realized if you let in a bad goal it really means nothing in the grand scheme of things. You think, what’s the worst thing that can happen out there? Maybe you get injured, that would be the worst thing. But you let in a bad goal? At the end of the day it’s going to make you better in the long run. You’re going to come back stronger from it.
“I think a lot of it is just knowing — what’s the big deal if something bad happens? And then you’re able to play freely and just kind of have fun and play with the flow of the game.
“And that’s when you’re at your best.”
What does a 23-year-old goalie with two Stanley Cups on his resume do next?
“You get ready to win another one,” Buckley says.
Whatever happens, it won’t be with Murray and Fleury sharing the crease. Murray, the younger and — in the Penguins’ estimation — better goaltender of the two (not to mention the less contractually expensive) is still here, while Fleury has departed for Las Vegas via the expansion draft.
“I can’t thank him enough,” Murray has said repeatedly, referencing the relationship the two shared.
Such changes are inevitable; in sports, as always, the show must go on, no matter how beloved the departing veteran may be.
Whatever lingering memories of Marc-Andre Fleury may exist in the minds of the fans would likely be erased should the Penguins approach the Stanley Cup once again. For Murray, a third championship would be achieved the way the first two were, by focusing on the journey rather than the destination.
He wants to play the game as well as he can. Winning again would be another byproduct of that.
It would also, presumably, include Murray taking another calculated step to craft and advance his game.
“There are always these little things that I see on a day-to-day basis,” Murray says. “After every game I watch the [scoring] chances against, puck handles. The older you get and the more you start to play, the more of these little things you can catch that make your job easier and give you an advantage mentally and physically. It’s just about staying on top of things.
“I’m always trying to add new things to my game and be unpredictable. You don’t want to be a robot out there. It’s just about thinking outside the box, doing things my way and trying to be a little unconventional at times.”
Murray entered this season planning to apply unpredictability against the NHL’s obsession with advanced scouting of opponents.
“As goalies, especially as young kids, you’re taught so much structure that every certain scenario, you’ll play it the exact same way every time,” he says. “And when that happens, especially at the NHL level, teams are going to pre-scout that. Teams are going to pick you apart, basically. They’re going to know exactly what you’re going to do and they’re going to know what they have to do to beat you.
“So I think at times it’s maybe about throwing a poke-check out there once in a while or being aggressive, sliding at a guy’s feet, something like that. Just switching things up and knowing when to be fundamental and when to get outside your comfort zone and do something a little bit crazy, throw a pad-stack in here or there, try to throw a saucer pass to the far blue line.
“I’m not afraid to get scored on. It’s about doing things differently once in a while, being unpredictable. That keeps other teams on their toes — and I think a lot of times forces them to overthink things. And then, all of a sudden, you’re in control.”
Although Murray and the Penguins are two-thirds of the way to a three-peat, a third championship captured before the end of his third NHL season remains almost inconceivable.
So Murray doesn’t ponder such a possibility. He’s focused on the next save, not the next parade.
“That’s a result, a final product,” he says. “You can’t win the Cup in September or October. That’s not something I think about, whatsoever, on a daily basis.
“I can’t even tell you who we’re playing against tomorrow just yet. That’s really how I focus on things. If you think about winning the Cup in October, you’re going to get ahead of yourself. And every little mistake you make is going to carry more weight than it should.
“We think about what we need to do, the process rather than the results, and let the results take care of themselves.”