PITTSBURGH (AP) — Matt Murray isn’t in the mood to think about what it all means, this ride that he’s on. The NHL’s best team on the other side of the ice. His mentor watching from bench. An arena chanting his name.
For the moment, there is only the next game, the next shot. That’s all that concerns the Pittsburgh Penguins rookie goaltender. Not the ripple effects his playoff run will have on his career, the franchise he plays for or the long-term future of Marc-Andre Fleury, whose guidance is one of the reasons Murray has become so good, so fast.
“I want to win,” Murray said. “On a personal level, I think it really doesn’t matter. Everything else is noise to me.”
And just like everything else thrown at Murray these days, he’s blocking it out.
The 21-year-old with the thatchy beard and the waistline that looks like it could use a good meal or two is perhaps the biggest reason the Penguins take a 2-1 lead into Game 4 of their contentious Eastern Conference semifinal against Washington on Wednesday night.
Murray stopped 47 shots in a 3-2 victory in Game 3 on Monday, keeping his head — not to mention his well-padded arms and legs — during three periods of duress in which the Capitals appeared to put an invisible fence at the Pittsburgh blue line, hemming the Penguins in their end for 60 minutes of hockey that appeared one-sided everywhere but the scoreboard.
And Murray did it with Fleury at the ready in case his protégé’s seemingly imperturbable veneer started to show signs of weakness. Active for the first time since sustaining a concussion on March 31, the winningest goaltender in Penguins’ history skated onto the ice at Consol Energy Center for warmups with his teammates before Game 2 then traded his helmet for a baseball cap while getting an eyeful of Murray’s spectacular performance.
“It’s more stressful when you don’t play than when you play,” Fleury said. “You just sit there and keep on cheering the guys.
Fleury might want to get used to the view. Barring a meltdown, coach Mike Sullivan has no plans — at least in this round — from making any sort of switch.
“We feel as though right now we have two guys in Marc and Matt that we think are terrific goaltenders,” Sullivan said Tuesday. “When we have healthy people at that position, that’s a good thing for our team.”
Sullivan coached Murray briefly early in the season when both were at Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and was well aware of what he had on his hands. Murray set an AHL record for longest shutout streak in 2014-15 and supplanted Jeff Zatkoff as Fleury’s primary backup in March.
If Murray is intimidated by the stage, it doesn’t show. At 6-foot-3 and 178 pounds, he looks like an unwieldy collection of limbs with his gear off. Yet he seems much larger with his No. 30 jersey pulled over his thin shoulders and is just as comfortable stepping out to cut down shooting angles from the point or creep deeper into the crease to allow himself a split-second longer to react.
He’s made a believer out of the Capitals, holding Alexander Ovechkin and the rest of the President’s Trophy winners to seven goals in nearly 190 minutes, including a relentless barrage near the end of Game 3.
“He’s very talented,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. “We knew that going in. It’s not a surprise to us. He’s looking like a franchise goaltender.”
Which is where the picture down the road starts to get blurry.
Fleury has three years left on a deal that pays him about $5.75 million annually, a contract that includes a limited no-trade clause. While Fleury remains a vital part of the club — his stellar play early in the season almost singlehandedly kept the Penguins afloat before Sullivan’s arrival in mid-December — he also understands the business side of things. The longer Murray — making $640,000 this season — stays in net, the more tenuous Fleury’s prospects of getting his old job back becomes, at least in Pittsburgh.
“I’m not there yet,” Fleury said. “I think focus is still on winning this year. That’s where it has to be then when that’s done, we’ll see.”
So Fleury will continue to serve as Murray’s sounding board, offering advice when needed or cracking a joke to break the tension.
“Maybe if I didn’t play (a puck) quite as well as I could have, I can come over and ask Flower what he thought about it, if he thought I could have done it better or whatever it may be,” Murray said. “I always bounce ideas off of basically anybody who’s around.”
Not that there’s much to work on at the moment. Murray is thriving. The Penguins are winning. The rest can wait.