For as easy as he made his first two seasons look with the Pittsburgh Penguins, backstopping them to back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships, the last couple seasons has been that much of a struggle for Matt Murray.
Dealing with injuries and inconsistent play, Murray has only looked like the guy who was a key piece in those championships far and in between.
This year, even before considering he has missed time due to an injury, Murray lost his starting job to Casey DeSmith. Injuries gave the former undrafted DeSmith the opportunity, and he ran away with it.
In his first 11 games before missing time with his most recent injury, Murray allowed five or more goals four times, posting a sub-.900 save percentage (SV%) and an over 3.00 goals-against-average (GAA).
Murray had a solid showing against the Los Angeles Kings in his first game back, stopping 38-of-41 shots and registering his fifth win of the season. The offensively challenged Kings, however, are a far cry from the Washington Capitals, the defending Stanley Cup champs and one of the hottest teams in the league.
So on the first end of a back-to-back, on national television, against their biggest rival, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if head coach Mike Sullivan went with DeSmith - who has won seven of his last ten starts after losing three in a row in November.
But as he has done so many times before, Sullivan went with Murray the bold move paid off, holding the Capitals to one goal on 32 shots overall - five of which came off the stick of Alexander Ovechkin, whose six-game goal streak (scoring ten in that span) came to an end.
The lone blemish on Murray’s stat sheet was Lars Eller’s breakaway goal after the Penguins got caught changing defensemen out.
Murray made several big saves including one on Brett Connolly in the slot and nothing but time to pick his spot.
Getting Murray back on track is going to be a big key for the Penguins going forward. For as good as DeSmith has played in his place, Pittsburgh has always been at their best when Murray is at the top of his game.
Confidence could play a huge factor in that, and getting the nod in such a big game, when they could have just as easily went in a different direction and save him for the Minnesota Wild, could help get Murray back to where he was when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in back-to-back years.
It was a gamble regardless to play Murray against the Capitals. He has posted less than stellar numbers in regular season games against the Capitals (5-4 record, .875 SV%, 3.93 GAA), while DeSmith stopped 20-of-22 in a 2-1 loss earlier this season in his lone appearance against Washington.
The win pushed the Penguins in a tie with the New York Islanders for third place in the Metropolitan division and now trail the Capitals by five points for the top spot overall.
Pittsburgh will face the Wild Thursday night, before wrapping up their pre-Christmas schedule with a Saturday night contest against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Will this game be the one that allows Murray to get back on track? Or were the Capitals just due for a game like this anyways? Let us know what you think of Murray and the Penguins going forward in the comment section below!