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Kevin Gorman: Spotlight on Matt Murray as Penguins raise banner

Kevin Gorman
| Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, 9:14 p.m.
The Penguins' goaltending load falls squarely on the shoulders of Matt Murray now that the team waived Antti Niemi.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' goaltending load falls squarely on the shoulders of Matt Murray now that the team waived Antti Niemi.
Penguins goaltender Matt Murray makes a save on the Red Wings' Tomas Tatar in the second period Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins goaltender Matt Murray makes a save on the Red Wings' Tomas Tatar in the second period Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.

The Penguins' 2017 Stanley Cup banner hung from above as the spotlight shined on Matt Murray in front of their net during the national anthem.

The moment illustrated Murray's paradox with the Penguins: The 23-year-old goaltender twice won Stanley Cup-clinching Game 6s before the end of his rookie season in the NHL.

When the Penguins raised the banner to the rafters Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena to commemorate their 2017 Cup championship, Murray had yet to start his first NHL opener.

“It will be pretty special to see that, to watch the banner go up and to play in the game afterwards,” Murray said Tuesday morning.

“It's a really cool moment and I think a really good moment also to put things to rest and look forward and start worrying about getting another one.”

Marc-Andre Fleury had started every Penguins opener since 2006, helping them clinch the third Cup in franchise history in 2009 and win back-to-back titles.

With Fleury now in Las Vegas via the NHL expansion draft, there will be no more No. 1 and 1A designations. Murray is the Penguins' unquestioned starting goalie, for now and the future.

And he's already one of the game's best, tied with Montreal's Carey Price for the NHL's best save percentage (.925) since his call-up. In fact, Murray, Price and Washington's Braden Holtby are 5-to-1 preseason favorites to win the Vezina Trophy, according to Bovada.lv.

“It's tough to hypothesize how his play will grow because his play has been unbelievable,” Penguins defenseman Ian Cole said of Murray. “I don't know if you can critique his play at all.

“But, that said, I don't think ‘Flower' was a detriment to him. I think they really fed off each other, pushed each other, relied on each other and leaned on each other to get through some tough times that both of them had.”

Murray will be the first to say so, treating any other talk as just noise. And all he wants to hear is the cheers of another Cup celebration.

“I've said this a couple of times now, but the term ‘No.1 goalie' or ‘starting goalie' is just a term, I think,” Murray said. “That doesn't make you valuable. Doing the right things and helping the team and coming to compete every day is what makes you valuable, not your title.”

Murray's value and title are both tangible, as he set a Penguins rookie record with 32 regular-season wins in 49 games, missing the start of the season last year after breaking his hand in the World Cup of Hockey.

Where Murray was impressive in the regular season, with a 2.41 goals-against average and .923 save percentage, he was even better in the NHL playoffs.

Murray tore his hamstring in warmups before Game 1 of the first round against Columbus but returned to replace Fleury as the starter in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinal.

Not only did Murray finish the postseason with a .937 save percentage and 1.70 GAA in 11 games, he won three by shutout — including Games 5 and 6 of the Cup Final against Nashville.

“He's accomplished a lot as a young goaltender, and that's a credit to him and a credit to his teammates,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “But he also understands that he's a young goalie, and he's got a lot of room to grow. He's got lots of areas where he can improve and bring his game to another level. ... He's one of those guys that just has an appetite to be the best.”

And that's a 6-foot-4 goalie with what Sullivan called a “laser focus” to stop the puck, a style more sound to Fleury's spectacular — but just as athletic in its own way.

Murray still is surprised to see fans wearing his No. 30 — a selection inspired by Martin Brodeur — while adjusting to the life of NHL stardom but isn't satisfied with winning two Stanley Cup championships.

“Two Cups, those are results. Results are the by-product or the end goal, but you don't win the Cup every day you're on the ice. So it's about getting better every day,” Murray said. “My goal isn't to win the Cup. It's to get better today, better tomorrow and better every day after that. I feel lucky just being on such a good team so early in my career.”

Now that he's no longer a rookie (and no longer looking over his shoulder), Murray hopes to take on a leadership role on a veteran-laden Penguins team attempting a Stanley Cup three-peat.

“Part of that for me is trying to be that backbone and trying to be that confident presence back there where guys know if they make a mistake it's not going to end up in our net,” Murray said.

“My focus is to stop the puck, keep the puck out of the net and to do so at the right times. That's a big part of leadership, is stepping up — in the important times of a game and in the important times of a season.”

Being on the ice for the Penguins' banner raising and beginning the season as their goalie is a good start.

Then Murray can worry about winning another one.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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