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World Cup

Matt Murray soaking it in at World Cup

After short offseason, Penguins goalie aims to start for Team North America

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- It was Matt Murray's first trip to the Bell Centre, and now, half-peeled out of his Team North America equipment, he was keenly aware of the history that was all around him.

"A bit of shock and awe," the 22-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender said Monday of this maiden visit, looking at the faces of Montreal Canadiens legends and the plaques of their champion teams displayed on the dressing room's walls.

If he had taken inventory, Murray would have seen smiles of seven Hockey Hall of Fame goalies: Georges Vezina, George Hainsworth, Bill Durnan, Jacques Plante, Gump Worsley, Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy. Coming soon: Rogie Vachon, who will be inducted this fall.

Murray often was compared last spring to Dryden, who played six regular-season games in 1970-71 before throwing the Canadiens on his back to anchor their improbable Stanley Cup victory.

Now, Murray was sitting in this room -- in the regular spot of Canadiens goalie Carey Price, who was practicing with Team Canada in Ottawa -- while Dryden and a half-dozen other iconic goalies gazed down at him.

"I know this is a very famous building," said the veteran of 13 regular-season NHL games who would win 15 of his 21 Stanley Cup Playoff games last season, helping the Penguins to the League championship.

"This is my first time seeing what's known as one of the best buildings in the League. It was very impressive when I first walked in. The facilities are first-class, and to see all these names and pictures around the room …" he added, the sentence trailing off.

To Murray's right, following Team North America's first practice, sat John Gibson and Connor Hellebuyck, fellow goalies he had faced at opposite ends of minor league and junior rinks but had met for the first time on Sunday.

It's commonly believed the starting job in goal for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 is Murray's to lose, given the poise and skill he showed as an untried rookie in the crucible of playoff hockey.

That he barely had time to change out of his equipment following the Penguins' championship run actually might not hurt either.

"It's by far the shortest summer I've ever had, especially with the World Cup starting early," Murray said. "We (the Penguins) played as late as you possibly can. Maybe it can help -- you kind of feel you're still in the mix without having had much time to relax."

Murray had a stellar .923 save percentage and 2.08 goals-against average in the playoffs. Only after the Penguins' Stanley Cup parade did the full experience come into focus.

"I was able to look back and watch some replays and video during the summer, and that's when it hit me what had happened," he said. "When you're in the moment, you're so focused on winning that you don't realize what's happening until it's over. But once you get home and decompress a little bit, you're able to look back and really enjoy it."

Video: PIT@SJS, Gm3: Murray stones Burns in front

The reality dawned even more clearly in mid-July when Murray took the Cup home to Thunder Bay, Ontario, to share it with his hometown.

"I brought the Cup to the local mall and 3,000 or 4,000 people came to see it," he said. "One of the reasons we play hockey is to inspire people. To see the reaction of people in my hometown, to see the looks on some kids' faces, was probably the best moment."

Murray has had just one taste of serious international hockey, having played seven games for Canada when it won the bronze medal at the 2012 IIHF Under-18 World Championship.

"I was cut from World Juniors every year," he said with a shrug.

A playoff series, he says, is probably the only thing that comes close to the World Cup, given the huge importance of every game.

"That and minor-hockey tournaments," he said, grinning. "It's all about performing in the moment. You really need to win every game. … That has to be our expectation now."

Murray chuckled about any edge held by Penguins teammates who this month will be shooting on him as World Cup opponents, having a bit of a book on him from NHL practices.

"I don't think that helps them any more than knowing them helps me," he said. "In a game scenario, everything's a little different. In practice, guys are coming down the pipe with all kinds of time, but in a game, that's not the case. It's a bit of a wash. They know some of your tendencies, as I know theirs. But in a game, I'm not really looking at who has the puck as much as I am the hands of the shooter and the curve on his stick. I don't necessarily know which player has the puck … depending on who you're talking about."

Murray, and every player who will take aim against him, should know this soon enough. Everyone in this tournament will go from a few practices and three pretournament games to high-intensity, pressure-packed hockey in a heartbeat. No one will have a handful of games, as they do at the start of an NHL season, to work out the kinks and find the groove.

"I don't think it's going to be much of a work-your-way-into-it situation," Murray said. "It's going to be all-out, right from the puck drop of the first pretournmament game because guys are trying to get ready for Game 1. You have to take every practice seriously, bear down a lot more in practice, and get more out of it. You're not going to get a whole lot of chances before the tournament starts."

And then, it will be right back into the fire as defending Stanley Cup champion, everyone wanting to dethrone the Penguins.

"The pinnacle of hockey is the Stanley Cup, and there's no better feeling as a team than being able to win that," Murray said. "But you need some perspective. We're starting early this year, and I know the Stanley Cup hangover is a big thing that's always talked about. You want to get right back into it. We enjoyed it over the summer, but now we're back in business and we're focused on the task at hand."

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