The Pittsburgh Penguins have dominated the NHL for the last 30 years, with five Stanley Cup championships since the 1989-90 season. In this span, no goaltender in franchise history has been more dominant, or better, than Matt Murray in the postseason. The Thunder Bay native became the only player in NHL history to win back-to-back championships in his first two seasons and saved the franchise during their time of darkness in the postseason.
Murray to the Rescue – 2016 Championship Run
Jeff Zatkoff had to start Game 1 and 2 of the playoffs in the first round due to Marc-Andre Fleury being out with a concussion. After winning Game 1 but falling short in game two, Murray slotted in for the next game and kept the starting job for all but one game for the remainder of the playoffs. He finished the series with a 3-0-0 record, good for a .952 save percentage (SV%) and 3.76 goals saved above expected (GSAx), ranking fourth and fifth in the league in those categories. The Penguins easily disposed of the New York Rangers in five games.
The second round was more of a challenge for Murray, facing the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. Despite this, he still managed to go 4-1-1 in the series, with a .926 SV% and 2.19 GSAx. His poise and calm demeanor stumped the Capitals and led to the eventual Nick Bonino game-winning goal in overtime in Game 6 to win the series.
The Tampa Bay Lightning was the biggest challenge for the Penguins. They had just come off of a Stanley Cup Final loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015 and were looking for redemption, with goaltender Ben Bishop having an amazing postseason leading up to that point. However, Bishop played just one period the entire series due to a lower-body injury and was replaced by Andrei Vasilevskiy. This was Murray’s worst postseason series, as he went 4-2-0 with a .904 SV% and a -3.44 GSAx, statistically being the worst goalie in the third round. Luckily for him, just like he bailed out his team in the first two rounds, they did the same for him in this series, and although it went the distance, the Penguins took it in seven games.
The Penguins made their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 2009, taking on the San Jose Sharks. Although Pittsburgh was the heavy favorites, San Jose still made it a good series, forcing it to six games. Through it all, Murray had a 4-2 record to go with his .920 SV% and 1.15 GSAx. He was very calm and collected throughout the series, in my opinion, it was his second-best series of this run, just trailing the Capitals series in the second round. He rightfully earned a Stanley Cup and the starter’s crease for the 2016-17 season.
One For the Record Books – 2017 Championship Run
The 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs did not start the way that Murray had hoped for. During warmups prior to Game 1 in the first round, Murray got injured and did not return, which led to Fleury starting the next two rounds, beating the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games, and Capitals in seven games.
In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final, Murray returned against the Ottawa Senators after Fleury allowed four goals on nine shots and did not give up the crease again. He finished the series with a 3-1-0 record to go with a .948 SV% and 2.39 GSAx, finishing as the best goalie of the third round statistically. He was crucial in many instances, including the double-overtime Game 7 victory, where he recorded a .931 SV% for the victory.
In the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year, Murray completely dominated the opposing goaltender, Pekka Rinne. He finished with a 4-2-0 record, with a .931 SV% and 2.17 GSAx, compared to Rinne’s .890 SV% and -2.46 GSAx. He was huge and arguably the MVP of this series for the Penguins in instances like Game 1 where the team had zero shots through 37 minutes and he held the fort down, leading to the victory, or the back-to-back shutouts in Game 5 and 6 to secure the championship. This was the best series of his career.
While this one was not all Murray, and you certainly have to give Fleury credit, the team was down 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Final with him in, and that all changed with the goalie switch.
Murray finished the postseason with a 7-3-0 record, .937 SV% and 4.56 GSAx, while Fleury finished with a 9-6-0 record, .924 SV% and 2.53 GSAx, so it shows that while both had an impact on the team, Murray outperformed him in the playoffs.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
After the back-to-back championships, not everything went as smoothly for the Penguins and Murray in the postseason. In 2018, he had had a 6-6 record, with a .908 SV% and a career-worst -2.77 GSAx in the postseason. It was a nightmarish playoff year for anybody on the team not named Sidney Crosby or Jake Guentzel. On the bright side, they lost to the eventual champions.
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In 2019, Murray went 0-4 as the Penguins were swept by the New York Islanders, however not to the fault of goaltending. With Erik Gudbranson and Garrett Wilson scoring two of the team’s three goals after Game 1, they lacked production and results from their top dogs, ultimately leading to their demise and loss. He finished the series with a .906 SV% and 1.86 GSAx.
In 2020, the Penguins just barely missed out of the top-four in the Eastern Conference, which meant they would not get a bye out of the first round, and had to take on the Montreal Canadiens. The team could never get into a rhythm and lost in four games, with Murray going 1-2, with a .914 SV% and -0.80 GSAx. While he played a decent series, he also allowed some bad goals and was tormented by Jeff Petry. He was benched for Game 5, which Tristan Jarry lost, and was shipped to the Senators later in the offseason.
The thing that sets Murray apart from other Penguins goaltenders in their postseason careers is his pure domination in the playoffs. There was never a single series that you would look back on and pin the majority of the blame on him.
From Penguins goaltenders since 2007-08, Murray led the pack in GSAx, with 6.87, ahead of Jarry, who possessed a -6.35, and Fleury, who had a -20.03. He was the only positive rating apart from Tomas Vokoun, who had a 0.88 and played in just one postseason.
Murray was 29-21 with a .921 SV% in his postseason career with the Penguins and tied Tom Barrasso for most Stanley Cups won as a starting goaltender as part of the franchise. Fleury had a 62-51 record and a measly .908 SV%, along with the abysmal GSAx I stated previously. While he is more iconic to Pittsburgh fans, he was never a better playoff performer. The current starting goaltender, Jarry, is 2-5 with a .894 SV%.
While Murray did have his bad moments in Pittsburgh, finishing his career with a horrific .899 SV% in the 2019-20 regular season, he did more for the franchise in the postseason than Fleury ever did, and without him, Crosby and Malkin would each be stuck with just one Stanley Cup ring today.
PIT Penguins Writer THW. Instagram: puckempire. Formerly a Florida Panthers writer.