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Penguins

Mark Madden: Despite struggles, it's time for Penguins goalie Matt Murray to start

| Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, 6:45 p.m.
Penguins Matt Murray with the “Stronger than Hate” patch on the should of his and the whole team for the Isalnders game Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins Matt Murray with the “Stronger than Hate” patch on the should of his and the whole team for the Isalnders game Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.

As the Penguins go to New Jersey seeking a second straight victory, which would be rarefied air right now, the question looms: Who’s the No. 1 goaltender?

It seems unthinkable that there’s a goalie controversy, and there probably isn’t. Matt Murray is the No. 1 goaltender.

Unless he’s not.

Casey DeSmith has started two straight games, has played extremely well and is likely to be in the blue paint at Newark.

Murray’s stats pale next to DeSmith’s. Murray’s goals-against average is 3.87, DeSmith’s is 1.89. Murray’s save percentage is .886, DeSmith’s is .942. DeSmith has made 59 saves over the last two games, allowing two goals.

So starting DeSmith against the Devils is totally logical.

But I would start Murray.

Murray is the No. 1 goaltender, the pedigree of two Stanley Cup rings shining no less bright despite recent struggles.

What DeSmith has done this year can’t be diminished, and he’s forging a claim to NHL legitimacy despite going undrafted, being small (just 6-foot) and toiling in Class AA ECHL just three seasons ago.

But can you envision DeSmith standing in the crease, his arms raised in triumph, when the clock hits three zeroes in the last game of the Stanley Cup Final?

Murray has done that twice. There’s video evidence if you need it.

The Penguins should go back to Murray sooner, not later.

Then again, the Penguins never went back to Marc-Andre Fleury except when injury dictated. Once Murray was available, he replaced Fleury — even when Fleury was red-hot during the 2017 playoffs.

That was OK for two reasons: The Penguins won the Stanley Cup, and coach Mike Sullivan was committed to Murray as his starter.

I’m assuming Sullivan still is.

But the coaching staff is a big fan of the underdog. That’s how Riley Sheahan gets to center Jake Guentzel and Phil Kessel.

Goaltending coach Mike Buckley had the same job at New Hampshire in 2012-13 when DeSmith played there. There’s a long-term connection.

But, right now, DeSmith ranks third in the NHL in both goals-against average and save percentage. No need to look for conspiracies. He’s playing on merit.

How does Murray feel about DeSmith getting this run of starts? How do Sullivan, Buckley and general manager Jim Rutherford truly feel about Murray?

It’s too late to have second thoughts about Murray. The time for that was 17 months ago, before Fleury was sent packing to Las Vegas.

Rutherford and Sullivan did what every GM and coach in the NHL would have: They kept the goaltender that was cheaper, a decade younger and had just won a second straight Stanley Cup.

The only tempting question: How long would the Penguins’ championship window be open, and who would be the superior goalie in that time?

Fleury left that debate open last season as he famously got Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final in the team’s first year. He has struggled a bit this season with a save percentage of just .895, which is better than Murray.

Fans constantly micro-analyze Murray’s performance. They don’t know what they’re seeing or talking about, but goalie is hockey’s most visible position and easiest to scapegoat. It’s the same with quarterback in football.

There’s one far-fetched fear when it comes to Murray: Did he peak in 2017?

That thought invokes memories of Washington’s Jim Carey, who won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie in his first full season at age 21 but was out of the league before he was 25. Montreal’s Steve Penney spectacularly won two playoff series as a 22-year-old rookie but was finished by 27.

Penney got replaced by Patrick Roy. Not Casey DeSmith.

Murray’s statistics have gone downhill since 2017, but every resume has peaks and valleys. Murray has dealt with injuries and personal tragedy, with both figuring heavily into last year’s career dip.

Murray is the No. 1 goalie. He might not play at New Jersey, but Sullivan needs to get Murray back in the net.

Perhaps this game is a good one for Murray to skip. The Devils are faster than the Penguins, but the Penguins haven’t yet realized that.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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