It was quite the debut season for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goaltender Matt Murray.
Playing in his first professional season with the Pens after starring in the Ontario Hockey League with the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds, Murray spent much of the 2014-15 season rewriting the American Hockey League record books for goaltenders while working his way towards being named the AHL Goaltender of the Year and Rookie of the Year.
The Thunder Bay, Ont. native compiled a record of 25-10-3 in 40 games for the Pens while leading the league with a 1.51 goals-against average, a .941 save percentage and 12 shutouts, more than any other rookie goaltender in AHL history.
During his impressive rookie season, Murray stopped every shot he faced from Feb. 8 to March 8, holding his opponents off the scoreboard for 304 minutes and 11 seconds, the longest shutout streak by a goaltender in the league’s 79-year history. But despite all of that, the Manchester Monarchs eliminated Murray and the Pens from the Calder Cup playoffs in the second round.
“The individual records kind of don’t mean a thing at the end of the year,” Murray said. “At the end of the day we got knocked out in the second round. You’re in this game to win championships at the end of the year and to win the last game of the season. The awards are great and everything, but we’re past that.”
The loss to the Monarchs eats at Murray, who said he didn’t play nearly as well as he wanted to. Due to the tough end to a great season, the 6-foot-4 goaltender has focused on keeping the same mindset night in and night out next season, which he says played a large role in his success last year.
“I’ve learned that it doesn’t really matter how much success or failure you have,” Murray said. “You have to keep the same mindset each and every day at the rink. In the end, I think it would be better if you kind of stay as even as possible without getting too high or too low. “
Heading into the 2015-16 season, expectations will be high for the goaltender, largely because of the success he’s achieved at the AHL level. While some wonder if he’s reached his peak in that league and should be moved up to the NHL, Murray knows that whatever happens next in terms of where he plays next season is out of his control. He’s just worried about leaving everything he has out on the ice each and every night, regardless of what sweater he has on.
“That’s kind of all up in the air and I feel like I’m going to get that question a lot, but it’s just something that is really out of my control,” Murray said. “I think either way could be good for me. I think playing in the AHL wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but also practicing with the best players in the world wouldn’t be a bad thing either, so the way I look at it, either way I can take the positives out of it. Wherever I end up, I’m still going to have the same determinations and play the same way each and every day and let things take care of itself.”
The need for Murray to continuously develop in the crease every night and managing expectations is far more important than having him sitting on the bench and watching, explained assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald.
“It’s easy to get excited when a prospect has the kind of season Matt did,” Fitzgerald said. “But we did not see that coming. We knew he was a good goalie. We knew he’d have some growing pains. No one ever expected him to be goalie of the year in the American Hockey League as a 20-year-old. So we still have to manage those (expectations).
“He’s not coming in here and beating out Marc-Andre Fleury and taking over this team. We love what we have down the line here, and it is down the line. He just turned 21. He needs to play hockey games. You can’t develop if he’s sitting on the bench. That’s just a fact.”
Murray can take the opportunity in development camp, training camp and another season in the AHL to continue improving his game, which he says needs plenty of work even though he had loads of success in 2014-15.
“As you jump levels, I think the biggest thing is to read the play and kind of see things before they happen as opposed to after they happen,” Murray said. “That’s something I worked on a lot last year and it just makes the entire game easier, especially with the height and speed at the next level of hockey.
“Obviously the NHL is the biggest and fastest in the entire world, so you’re going to have to be pretty good at reading the play and almost being one step ahead of the play, so that’s what I tend to work on the most.”
For Murray, he hopes the right direction leads him eventually to the NHL, but he’ll focus on the task at hand night after night while giving his team the best chance to win each and every game.
“I’m really going into it with an open mind and not trying to expect anything,” Murray said. “Just (want to) compete and play my heart out every time I’m out on the ice.
“Confidence kind of comes with experience and playing time, so the more I play and develop in the net, the more comfortable I feel. Hopefully that continues and I keep playing a lot of games and building confidence.”
He’ll look to do that all while managing expectations.