PITTSBURGH — Matt Murray jokes he can’t help but do a double take whenever he sees a No. 30 Pittsburgh Penguins jersey in public.
“I still think it’s a family member or something,” the Penguins goaltender said with a laugh.
Hard to blame him. Two years ago, Murray was still in the minors, a 21-year-old long on promise but whose time as the heir apparent to Marc-Andre Fleury was still off somewhere in the gauzy distance.
Like seemingly everything else in Murray’s burgeoning career, the future arrived ahead of schedule. Funny how winning a pair of Stanley Cup championships speeds things up.
When Murray skates onto the PPG Arena ice on Wednesday night for the season opener against St. Louis, he’ll do it for the first time as a true No. 1 NHL goalie. No more of the “Murray vs. Fleury” debates that raged across social media and talk radio — but never in the Penguins dressing room — during their professional if occasionally uncomfortable coexistence.
The gig is Murray’s. For now and for later.
Even with his name stenciled on his sport’s most prized possession — twice — he’s in no mood for a victory lap.
“I think there’s always something to prove,” Murray said. “Nothing’s given to you in this league that’s for sure. You’ve got to keep your foot on the gas pedal and that’s what I intend to do. I don’t feel like I’ve earned anything.”
On that point, he might be wrong. The Penguins didn’t deal the franchise’s all-time winningest goaltender to Las Vegas as a favor to get Fleury more playing time. Murray’s play during the 2016 and 2017 playoffs (when he went a combined 22-9 with a 1.95 goals-against average) erased what little doubt remained in general manager Jim Rutherford’s mind about Murray’s dependability. Fleury was a luxury the team no longer needed to afford.
It also set the bar almost impossibly high. Anything less than a championship will be a comedown on some level. Yet Murray isn’t one to get caught up in the big picture. There’s only the next practice, the next drill, the next game. The player who admits to studying Tom Brady’s mental approach does not get caught up in the results. Do the right things the right way often enough, and the results will come.
“My goal isn’t to win the Cup,” he said. “My goal is to get better today, better tomorrow, better the day after that. That’s helped.”
While Murray points to his astounding success as a byproduct of playing on a team loaded with talent that happens to include two of the best players in the world in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the rest of the Penguins see it a little bit differently.
“He’s very much one of the huge reasons we won two Stanley Cups,” defensemen Ian Cole said. “He’s part of the core of this team now that leads us to be successful night in and night out.”
Heady territory to be sure for the tall skinny kid from Thunder Bay, Ontario, who grew up idolizing Martin Brodeur. He was in middle school the last time someone other than Fleury started the opener for the Penguins. Jocelyn Thibault dropped the first three games in 2005 before giving way to Fleury, who held the job for more than a decade while piling up 375 victories, three Stanley Cup rings and a special place in the heart of a fan base won over by the infectious joy he brought to his work.
Ever the showman, Fleury wasn’t immune to kissing the crossbar after a shot clanged off it and skittered out of danger or doing snow angels to make a save. Murray is not that guy. And that’s OK. A tap of a defenseman’s shins after a blocked shot is about as much as you’ll see him emote during a game. He’s more concerned about not getting caught up in himself or the moment.
“He’s super athletic but he’s always in a position where, ideally, he doesn’t have to be athletic,” Cole said. “He’s big. He’s square. He just moves around and takes away great angles until there’s a breakdown and then he can make that spectacular save.”
Something Murray should give himself plenty of chances to do this season as the Penguins try to become the first team in 35 years to three-peat. Given his playoff experience, it’s easy to forget he’s appeared in just 62 regular-season games since making his NHL debut on Dec. 19, 2015. If he stays healthy, he could match that total easily over the next six months while Antti Niemi serves as the top backup.
“You never like watching,” Murray said. “You swallow your pride as a hockey player. It’s about the team but of course as a competitor you want to be the guy out there playing, not watching.”
Murray won’t lack for opportunities. When faced with any sort of goalie dilemma the last two springs, Sullivan turned to Murray at each opportunity. Murray repaid that trust by helping the Penguins make history. There’s plenty more to be written.
“I think Murs’ career is still very young,” Cole said. “But I think by the end of it he’ll be right up there with the greats of the game.”
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