Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan is no stranger to making tough decisions regarding his starting goaltender. That dates to his earliest days behind the team’s bench when he coached the likes of Marc-Andre Fleury, Jeff Zatkoff and an up-and-coming Matt Murray.
There have been times over the past three years where his decisions might have seemed strange to those looking in from the outside, but they’ve almost always worked out.
He had to turn to Murray in 2016 after Fleury went down with a concussion and the youngster led them to the Stanley Cup Championship. The next season he rode Fleury into the playoffs after Murray was injured and was rewarded with spectacular play that got his team to the Conference Final, but when Fleury faltered – even slightly – he didn’t hesitate to go back to Murray. Fans reacted wildly, so did many media members, but Murray took over against the Ottawa Senators and never looked back as he again led the team to the Stanley Cup.
Sullivan was tasked with another tough decision just over a week ago, but this time it involved Murray and his new understudy, Casey DeSmith. Murray was coming off of a concussion that occurred sometime after he allowed 11 goals in his first two appearances of the season, while DeSmith looked masterful during a 35-save, 4-2 victory on home ice over the Vegas Golden Knights on Oct. 11.
Murray was back on ice earlier that day, but didn’t dress for the game versus Vegas. He participated in a full practice that Friday and was set to serve as DeSmith’s backup in Montreal last Saturday. Nothing seemed odd about that decision. The two-time Stanley Cup winner was just coming off of an injury and this move is almost always the first step in any comeback for a goaltender.
DeSmith gave the Penguins a chance in Montreal, but ultimately fell 4-3 in a shootout. All seemed to fall into place for Murray to reclaim his spot in the starter’s net Tuesday versus the Vancouver Canucks – not so fast. DeSmith was the first goaltender off of the ice following the game day skate.
Sullivan fielded questions from a confused media following that session. He answered ‘yes’ when asked if DeSmith would indeed be the starter that night before explaining his decision.
“When you look at his last couple of games he’s really helped us get three out of four points,” Sullivan said. “He’s got a .935 save percentage in two games. It’s pretty impressive. It doesn’t take away from the fact that Matt’s our No. 1 goalie.”
That’s the thing, Murray is the No. 1 goalie, but he started the season slowly. Many coaches would have gone right back to their top guy the moment he was healthy enough to skate with the team.
He knows that his team hasn’t performed up its normal standards through five games, but he also knows that Murray hasn’t shown that he could be the difference maker in that situation. At least not yet. His own game hasn’t reached the standards that we have all become accustomed to seeing.
“When you’re backing up and you’re on the bench, you’re seeing the game up close. “It’s very different than when you’re not dressed and you’re in the press box. It’s a completely different game. The speed is different,” Sullivan went on to explain earlier this week. “We think it’s part of the return-to-play process that we think helps any player. That’s some of the logic that went into the decision.”
Sullivan isn’t one to play games, especially those of the mind, with his players, but this could have been done to ruffle Murray’s feathers a bit – to disrupt his comfort zone just a little.
Murray has been ready to play for upwards of five days and it would have been easy to put him back in net against the Canucks. Sullivan didn’t do that. He asked his two-time Stanley Cup winner to sit back and watch.
Sometimes it is easy to fall into a groove of feeling like your job is safe and that allows the guard to come down just a little. That isn’t to say that Murray hasn’t worked hard. It’s worth noting that he might have worked harder than ever before during the offseason to get his game in shape. Nor has he said or done anything that speaks to this being the case, but he just hasn’t looked comfortable in the games he’s played.
The 24-year-old didn’t seem thrilled when asked about getting the additional time to watch his team from the bench.
“That’s coach’s decision so I just work as hard as I can in practice to try to get ready for when my name is called,” he said.
His name is being called on Thursday against the highest scoring team in the league, the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs have roared to a 6-1-0 record largely based on its ability to score goals. They’re averaging 4.71 goals per game and have already beaten goaltenders 33 times.
It might have been nice for Murray to get into that tune up game versus the Canucks, but Sullivan’s machinations look to have been more than enough to get Murray ready and he doesn’t care who the opponent is.
“It doesn’t matter. I don’t control that… I can’t worry about that. It’s the same mindset. It’s the same challenge either way. They’re a pretty dynamic team. It’s going to be a difficult game for us.”
Brian Metzer covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Pittsburgh Current. Follow him at firstname.lastname@example.org