An empty practice rink is one thing, but an empty arena for an NHL playoff game? That's something Matt Murray never imagined before.
Unprecedented times create unexpected challenges when hockey returns from a pandemic.
"I can't say I've ever been in this scenario, so I'm not really sure how I can answer that," the Penguins goaltender said on a video conference call with local media on Tuesday. "I know that us as a team, and as individuals, we're going to have to create our own energy, without that energy from the crowd that you definitely feel. It's a new challenge, but I think one that everyone is excited for. It'll be really interesting, a cool story to tell one day. We've got to go into it with an open mind."
Video: Matt Murray talks to the media during Phase 2.
Murray is one of more than 20 Penguins players taking part in voluntary informal workouts at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township. It is part of Phase 2 of the NHL's Return-to-Play plan, leading into full training camps, which are targeted for July 10. Several weeks after that, the league is expected to move into Phase 4 - actual games - with 24 teams competing in two hub cities, albeit without fans in the stands. The Penguins will take on the Montreal Canadiens in a best-of-five play-in round.
"I don't think there was necessarily any one option that would keep everybody happy or be the perfect option, (but) this is, I think, the best option on the table, and we're going to make the most of it," he said. "In terms of preparation, it's similar to the normal playoffs - just an extra series - and the fact that we've been off for such a long time makes it feel a little bit more like a tournament. It just kind of builds the excitement, which I think is great. I think it's the best we can do in this situation, and me, personally, and our team are really looking forward to the challenge."
The 26-year-old native of Thunder Bay, Ontario backstopped the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017 and also has played for Team Canada and Team North America in international competition. None of that vast experience prepared him for the unique challenge of returning from a three-month shutdown with informal small-group units on the ice, as the Penguins are doing now, but Murray has enjoyed battling through it this way.
"It's different than a normal practice, obviously," he said. "For a goalie like myself, it's great because you see quite a few shots. For the shooters, there is maybe a little more skating than normal because there are less players and you get less time to rest … but I've been really enjoying these skates so far. I think the work that we're getting and what we're able to work on is very concentrated. Hopefully, we can keep progressing and maybe have bigger groups soon … and (then) obviously training camp to get the whole team together."
Asked about any internal competition with Tristan Jarry, the Penguins' other goaltender, who represented the team at the NHL All-Star Game this year, Murray said, "For me, personally, all I can do is focus on what I can control and try to put my best effort forward, every practice, every game. Just making the best of situation we're in, putting in the hours now, doing everything we can to be prepared for when the puck drops. I'm going to do everything I can to be sharp and be at my best and help this team win another Stanley Cup."
To win again this year, the first obstacle is Montreal in the play-in round. The Canadiens are the No. 12 seed in the East, but Murray and the Penguins know that previous records and point totals won't mean a thing.
"They're fast, they're well-coached, they're structured," he said. "We know that we're in for a huge challenge. They're a dangerous team. That's all we're trying to focus on right now is getting ready for that series. We've been watching some video. Obviously, we don't get to see them a whole lot during the season, but it's clear how fast they are, how hard they work."
Murray believes he is ready to do his part when called upon. Some of that is because he was able to maintain his conditioning at home before returning to Pittsburgh for the Phase 2 informal skates.
"I spent a good portion of the lockdown at my home in Canada, where I have a full gym, so I was able to stay in shape," he said. "I was lucky that way. As far as the eyes and (puck) tracking, you just do as many tennis ball drills as you can. I was lucky to have a pretty good setup to stay sharp at home, and I worked extremely hard on it. I just tried to make the best of the situation and use whatever things I had at my disposal."