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Stanley Cup Final

Murray impressing NHL peers with composure

Resilient Penguins goalie on verge of becoming first rookie starter to win Stanley Cup since 2006

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

Martin Gerber had a front-row seat the last time a rookie goaltender helped his team win the Stanley Cup. 

In 2006, Gerber, then with the Carolina Hurricanes, lost the starting goalie job to 22-year-old rookie Cam Ward in the second game of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And with the exception of two starts and one win in the Eastern Conference Final, Gerber mostly watched when Ward helped lead the Hurricanes to the championship and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Ten years later, rookie goaltender Matt Murray has the Pittsburgh Penguins on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup. The Penguins lead the San Jose Sharks 3-1 in the best-of-7 series and can clinch the championship with a victory in Game 5 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). 

Like Ward, Murray lost the starting job briefly during the conference final. Like Ward, Murray has more wins in his first playoff run than he had in the NHL before they started.

Talking to Gerber about how Ward handled the situation in 2006, it seems clear the similarities between the goalies don't end there.

"He didn't worry about what was going on around him," Gerber said over the phone from his native Switzerland, where the 41-year-old continues to play professionally five years after his NHL career ended with 229 games in seven seasons with the Anaheim Ducks, Hurricanes, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers. "He'd just go play and stay calm, like it was something he had done his whole life."

Talking to goalies around the League about Murray's playoff run, there was a wariness to add to the hype that has seen him compared to Hockey Hall of Fame goalies Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden, who also won the Stanley Cup as rookies. Some declined to comment, saying it is more a function of the Penguins defensive play. But even if Murray doesn't follow Ward as a Conn Smythe winner, he has impressed a lot of his puck-stopping peers with his composure.

"The thing that has been the most impressive to me has been the way he has handled some very tough situations," said Minnesota Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

Dubnyk pointed to two instances: Losing the starting job to Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final before returning to win Games 6 and 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning; and giving up a long, tying goal and losing in overtime of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Sharks before bouncing back to win Game 4 on the road.

Video: PIT@SJS, Gm4: Murray robs Marleau all alone

"You look at the way he reacts to how goals go in and it doesn't seem to matter at what time of the game they go in or how they go in. He just pops back up and it's never like, 'Oh my goodness, I can't believe that just happened,'" Dubnyk said. "He doesn't start running around if a couple goals go in. He doesn't start chasing things and sliding all over the place. He looks like the same goalie every game for the entire game. Whether goals go in or they don't go in, he looks the same and his teammates know exactly what they are going to get every night and that is what you want from a starting goaltender."

That ability to remain stable has impressed other NHL goaltenders as well. It's not always easy in the playoffs. There's always talk about raising the intensity, and the media spotlight gets brighter and scrutiny more intense with each round. But for a goaltender, trying harder isn't necessarily a recipe for success stopping pucks.

"When you are a rookie in the playoffs sometimes you want to try to do more than you actually need to," St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen said. "I think [Murray] has stayed consistent to his game, consistent to himself throughout the playoffs, and it's worked. It's worked for him at all the levels and it's still working at the NHL level and in the Stanley Cup Final. For him to not change his game at all and just trust himself is a huge factor."

Like Murray last season, Allen was named the most outstanding goaltender in the American Hockey League before getting his first start in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, in 2015 for the Blues. After starting well and splitting the first four games against Dubnyk and the Wild in the Western Conference First Round, Allen said he "almost tried too hard" as the Blues lost the last two games of the series.

"That was a fault on my front but something I learned from," he said.

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

Hurricanes goalie Eddie Lack described a similar learning curve after getting to start for the Vancouver Canucks against the Calgary Flames in the first round of the 2015 playoffs.

"You want to treat it like just another game as a goalie," Lack said. "But deep inside you also feel it's a very special opportunity and you want to make the best of it."

No matter what some might think of his role in the Penguins run, Murray's ability to find that balance during his first Stanley Cup Playoff experience has impressed his peers.

"The emotions are higher, but the more you absorb that and allow it to take effect on you, that's just not going to help your cause," Dubnyk said. "You want to tune that all out, and it gets tougher and tougher to do as the games go on and as the playoffs go on. The pressure rises and some guys can't. Some guys can. Some guys learn to. He's obviously capable of doing that at a very young age on the biggest stage and it's impressive."

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