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Murray steadying force for Penguins heading into playoffs

Goalie overcomes adversity, injuries for strong finish

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / NHL.com Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Matt Murray will have the same calm, cool and collected look behind the bars of his familiar black-and-yellow mask when his Pittsburgh Penguins begin the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Wednesday against the New York Islanders (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS).

But looks can be deceiving.

Three years after playing in his first NHL postseason, the Penguins goalie has been on a roller-coaster ride of emotions that has produced both tears of jubilation and devastation.

"So many highs, so many lows," Murray said. "I was always a pretty mature kid but those up-and-down experiences have made me grow up quicker, that's for sure."

 

[RELATED: Complete Islanders vs. Penguins series coverage]

 

The highest of highs: helping the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017. The lowest of lows: the death of his father James, his inspiration and mentor, on Jan. 14, 2018.

There has been a succession of injuries this season. Murray missed three games with a concussion from Oct. 6-18, then was out 13 games with a lower-body injury from Nov. 17-Dec. 15.

Video: Previewing the Islanders-Penguins First Round matchup

He returned to the lineup on Dec. 15 and helped the Penguins defeat the Los Angeles Kings 4-3 in overtime, starting a personal nine-game winning streak through Jan. 11. He is 7-3-2 in his past 12 starts and has allowed two goals or less in eight of those games.

Murray said the life experiences he's had to deal with in the past 36 months helped him better handle adversity and bounce back the way he has.

"For sure," Murray said. "It's probably a lot more than three years of events packed into three years. I think going through some of the ups as well but the downs for sure, have made me a better person. I think in the long run, it's only going to help me."

Coach Mike Sullivan feels people sometimes forget that Murray is only 24. It's an easy oversight to make, given Murray is about to play in his fourth postseason.

"He's been through a whole lot, both in his hockey life and his personal life," Sullivan said. "I just think he's a very mature kid and a real good goalie. He's a competitive guy who wants to be at his best and help his team win. He's gone through ups and downs both inside the rink and outside the rink. But he handles them extremely well."

Sullivan's faith in Murray dates back to 2015-16, a season that each started with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. Sullivan was promoted to take over as Penguins coach on Dec. 12, 2015 after incumbent Mike Johnston was fired. 

Seven days later, Murray made his NHL debut, a 2-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Murray would go on to have 15 wins in the playoffs (two more than his regular-season total) to help the Penguins win the Cup. He went 7-3 in 2016 playoffs, combining with Marc-Andre Fleury to help the Penguins to a second straight championship. 

In the midst of mourning his father, Murray helped the Penguins defeat the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in the 2018 Eastern Conference First Round. His streak of nine consecutive postseason series wins came to an end in the second round when the Penguins were eliminated in six games by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.

Video: CAR@PIT: Murray cuts down the angle to deny de Haan

Sullivan dismisses the notion that Murray was distracted. 

"The thing about Matt is that he controls what he can and he focuses on the task at hand," Sullivan said. "I think that's really one of Matt's strengths is his ability to respond to any adversities come his way whether it's on the ice or off the ice and just try to stay in the moment and try to work every day to get better both as a player and as a person. But he's been great for us for quite a while and we're going to need him to continue to do that."

Murray's playoff numbers (28-15, 2.08 goals-against average), coupled with his consistent play the past four months (25-9-5, 2.34 GAA since returning from injury Dec. 15) continues to impress captain Sidney Crosby.

"You think about all the things he's gone through and that's a lot to handle as a young player in the NHL," Crosby said. "It's hard enough just trying to find your way but especially as a goaltender and all the pressure that comes with that. Handling the success and dealing with the adversity and everything. He's handled it the best that he can and then some.

"He means a lot to us. He's the reason we're competing right now. He's held us in some games. We've been banged up at different points and he's stolen points for us. he's been steady since he's come into the League. This year hasn't been any different."

There is one memory Murray particularly cherishes of his dad. 

It was the summer of 2016 and Murray had brought the Stanley Cup back to his hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario. During a small gathering of friends and family, Matt and James stood side by side; son holding the real Cup over his head, his father doing the same with a small Cup replica constructed out of tin foil that Matt had made as a kid.

"(Losing him) was tough," Murray said. "But it's part of life. It makes you stronger.

"I know I'm lucky to be where I am. I never take it for granted."

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