Penguins rookie goaltender Murray has Rangers on brink

Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray (30) is congratulated by left wing Conor Sheary (43) after recording a shutout in the Penguins' 5-0 win over the New York Rangers in Game 4 of an NHL hockey first-round Stanley Cup playoff series, Thursday, April 21, 2016, in New York. (AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Matt Murray watched the Pittsburgh Penguins’ second-round collapse against the New York Rangers from afar two years ago, the wispy goaltender still a teenage prospect in the spring of 2014 as a 3-1 series lead morphed into a franchise-altering meltdown.

The view is far different this time around for the 21-year-old with the patchy playoff beard and the preternatural calm. The 3-1 advantage Pittsburgh takes into Saturday’s Game 5 (3 p.m. EDT, NBC) has as much to do with the rookie’s steadiness while filling in for injured Marc-Andre Fleury as it does the performances of the bold-faced names in front of him.

Murray is perhaps the most visible rookie making an impact during the postseason, but not the only one. Teammates Conor Sheary and Tom Kuhnhackl have given the Penguins a needed dose of youth and speed at forward. Artemi Panarin is helping keep the Chicago Blackhawks’ season alive while Robby Fabbri and Colton Parayko are looking to get St. Louis beyond the opening round for only the third time since 2003.

Murray stopped 47 of the 48 shots he faced in the first two postseason starts of his blossoming NHL career, ultimately one-sided victories in Games 3 and 4 at Madison Square Garden in which he outplayed Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist.

It’s pretty heady territory for a kid from Thunder Bay, Ontario, who was in middle school when Lundqvist started winning playoff games. Just don’t expect Murray to do much introspection on what it all means. That’s simply not what he does.

“It’s important you don’t get too high or too low,” Murray said.

Murray prefers to remain in the moment, one the Penguins envisioned would come one day for Murray, just perhaps not so soon. They took him in the third-round of the 2012 draft and anticipated he would one day be the primary backup — and perhaps eventual successor — to Fleury. Then Murray set an AHL record with 12 shutouts in 2014-15 and made his way to Pittsburgh briefly in December before coming up for good in late February.

Don’t expect him to head back to the AHL. Not anymore. Murray hardly looked overcome by the stage when Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan put him in the lineup for Game 3. While Murray admitted to nerves, he approached his job with same wiry athleticism that has carried him from the junior ranks to the game’s biggest stage in barely two years.

“It’s a lot to be thrown at a young goalie,” Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. “I think he’s handled it really well. He’s shown a ton of poise. He’s got confidence in himself and he’s really competitive. I think that’s allowed him to play the way he has.”

Having Fleury to rely on certainly helps. Fleury skated Friday before practice but remains out indefinitely with a concussion sustained on March 31. Yet he’s proven a vital resource for Murray as he deals with the transition from the minor leagues to the spotlight.

When Murray struggled in the first period against Buffalo late in the regular season, giving up three goals on a handful of shots, Fleury walked over to him during the intermission and faked brushing dirt off Murray’s shoulders, his own way of telling Murray to shake it off. The Penguins came back to win that afternoon, something they’ve done in each of the last nine games Murray has played a full three periods.

“He looks pretty calm in the net and I think that is due to our not stressing him enough,” Rangers forward Tanner Glass said. “He does look pretty good in there right now.”

New York has one more shot to make Murray uncomfortable. If not, the 6-foot-4, 178-pound kid will help the Penguins exorcise the demons from their 2014 collapse and send them to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the third time in four years.


Blues at Blackhawks, St. Louis leads 3-2 (8 p.m. EDT, NBC)

The Chicago Blackhawks know a thing or two about fighting off elimination. Now, the defending Stanley Cup champions have a chance to force a decisive seventh game.

“There’s no doubt that the longer this series goes, the more pressure will be on that team,” Chicago’s Jonathan Toews said. “But they’re as hungry as ever and I don’t think if you ask any of them they’ll say any of that matters.”

The Blues took Games 3 and 4 at the United Center as well as two of three during the regular season. But if there is one thing Chicago has shown over the years, it is an ability to regroup.

Since the start of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Blackhawks have won 12 of 16 games when facing elimination. They have also captured three of the past six Cups, but are also trying to avoid first-round elimination for the third time in six seasons.

“I think we’ve been playing some decent hockey, but I still feel that we have one more level,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “We just have to be a little bit deeper, I think. We have another level that we have to reach if we want to go past this round and if we want to have a big comeback.”


Predators at Ducks, tied 2-2 (6 p.m. EDT, NBCSN)

The road team has won every game in this series with the Ducks looking like the team that dominated the league the second half of the season in evening the series with two wins in Nashville.

Now the Ducks’ challenge is to play that way back in Anaheim with a chance to take control of this series. Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau doesn’t want his Ducks relaxing just because they won two games in Nashville.

“You put yourself into too many holes, and you won’t dig yourself out,” Boudreau said. “We would certainly like to not do that too much more.”

Boudreau said he’ll probably stick with Frederik Andersen in net after the goalie set a career postseason shutout streak in Nashville snapped at 91 minutes, 26 seconds by the only goal the goalie has allowed in two starts.