Emotions ran the gamut as Pittsburgh Penguins players tried to wrap their heads around a stunning first-round sweep by the New York Islanders this week, but most fell somewhere in between disbelief and disappointment.
As he packed up his gear before heading home to Thunder Bay, Ontario, for the summer, goalie Matt Murray — as he often does — had a different take.
Murray said he was grateful for the path he walked this season.
Despite the ups and downs, the injuries and the humiliating conclusion, Murray leaned against a wall at the team’s practice facility in Cranberry with a bunch of microphones in his face and gave thanks.
“You’ve got to be thankful for some of the hard times you go through,” Murray said. “I think that helps you grow a lot more in the long run. That’s what happened this year for sure.”
Murray woke up Thanksgiving morning with his season in shambles.
His 4-5-1 record and .877 save percentage tell the tale pretty well, but the picture becomes clearer using a stat called expected goals. It looks at the shots a goalie faces — the type, distance, angle and whether it came off the rush or on a rebound — and determines what an average netminder’s goals-against average would be under the same conditions.
Murray’s expected goals-against average was 2.85. His actual GAA was 4.08. He was giving up one-plus more goals per game than he should have been.
Jim Rutherford never has publicly expressed anything but confidence in his 24-year-old two-time Stanley Cup champ, but at that moment, who could have blamed the general manager if he was considering trade possibilities and wondering if Murray really was the team’s goalie of the future?
Murray was shut down for the next three weeks or so to heal a nagging lower-body injury. When he returned Dec. 15, he was a new goalie.
He went 25-9-5 the rest of the way. His .930 save percentage was fifth best in the league. His GAA (2.34) was better than expected (2.57). He had pulled his season out of the abyss.
“It’s not fun getting injured and missing time like that, but I thought I did a good job coming back stronger,” Murray said. “Just tried to get better and better after that.”
Most impressively, Murray started 18 of the team’s last 19 games as the Penguins desperately tried to push their way into the playoffs. Plagued in the past by an extensive injury history, Murray could have been accurately described as a workhorse for the first time.
“That’s one thing I was proud of, the amount I was able to play towards the end of the season,” Murray said. “Just how thankful I am to the strength guys for keeping us in such good shape. That’s one positive this year.”
The playoffs weren’t a positive.
The stats show Murray’s performance was average. His GAA (3.07) and expected GAA (3.02) were almost identical.
Where he looked bad, however, was in comparison to Islanders goalie Robin Lehner.
Murray stopped 39 of 47 of the high-danger shots he faced in the series (.830). That’s decent, a little better than he did in those situations in the regular season (.819). Lehner stopped 31 of 32, which borders on ridiculous.
“Obviously, just fell short in the playoffs,” Murray said.
Being outplayed by Lehner left Murray disappointed, but it wasn’t enough to make him doubt the strides he made this season.
It hurt, but it didn’t snuff out his gratitude.
“I’ve been through a lot the last couple years, a lot of learning experiences, a lot of growth, for sure, especially this year,” Murray said. “I’m happy with the growth process so far and hope to continue that. That’s what it’s all about: growing as a person and as a hockey player.”