Penguins goalie Matt Murray has played more like a Hall of Famer than a rookie

ByPierre LeBrun ESPN logo
Thursday, June 9, 2016

PITTSBURGH -- Some 45 years ago, a tall, lanky rookie goalie took the playoffs by storm en route to a Stanley Cup championship people still talk about to this day.

It is uncanny, really, how a tall, lanky rookie goalie for the Pittsburgh Penguinsis reminding many of Ken Dryden and his 1971 Cup run with the Montreal Canadiens.

"Matt Murray doesn't need any comparisons to be made. He's doing very well writing his own story," said Dryden, as only he can, via email on Tuesday.

The parallels, though, are hard to ignore.

Dryden, 23 at the time, had played in only six NHL games late in that 1970-71 regular season before getting the nod in the playoffs. Murray, 22, appeared in 19 regular-season games before getting the playoff gig because of Marc-Andre Fleury's concussion.

Just don't try to make that comparison to Murray.

"I mean, there's no comparison," Murray said with a smile Wednesday, the day before Thursday's potential Cup-clinching Game 5 in Pittsburgh. The Penguins have a 3-1 series lead over the San Jose Sharks. "I kind of laugh at those [comparisons] because no one will ever compare to Ken Dryden. So that just makes me laugh."

Despite the multigenerational gap, Murray knows all about Dryden, one of the game's great intellectuals as well as a Hall of Famer.

"He's more than just a hockey player. He's a very smart man," Murray said of Dryden. "I read a little bit of his book, 'The Game,' when I was younger. I know a lot of stuff about him.''

With one more win, Murray can join the likes of Dryden, Patrick Roy, Cam Ward and Antti Niemi as rookie goalies who led their respective teams to Stanley Cups.

It hasn't happened that often.

"It's pretty easy to see the similarities of the experience that I had when I was a rookie in 2006,'' Ward said over the phone. "Being young like that, coming into the league, it's been real fun to watch him.''

Ward, like Dryden and Roy in their rookie playoff seasons, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Like Murray, Ward was 22 when he made his memorable run, playing like he had ice in his veins.

"Matt Murray just looks real composed and looks like he's thriving in the atmosphere that he's placed in," said Ward, the longtime Carolina Hurricanes goalie. "I can remember going into Game 3 in Montreal [in the first round]. I took a second at center ice while I was stretching just to look up in the stands to see 22,000 fans. And just thinking, 'How cool is this?' That no matter what was going to happen to me, I was going to enjoy the moment and try to take advantage of it. I really think that's probably the mindset that Matt Murray is playing with. There were no expectations prior. He's playing with no fear and just having fun with it. It's really great for the game.''

Both on and off the ice, Murray appears completely unaffected by what's going on around him.

"He's really calm in there," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said Wednesday. "He shows a lot of poise. Every night it's the same thing, no matter what happens. And I think that's really important for a goalie. I'm sure every goalie wants to have that type of demeanor. I think it comes very easy for him to be like that. That's naturally the way he is. But deep down inside, I think he's very competitive, and I think the fact he's that competitive allows him to compete like he does every night.''

On Wednesday, Murray was asked to name the two goalies he looked up to the most while he was growing up. His reply: Roy and Martin Brodeur.

Turns out Murray has an admirer in Brodeur, the NHL's all-time winningest goalie.

"I think the league is younger now and guys are more prepared,'' Brodeur said over the phone Wednesday. "But goalie is a special position. The mental game, the pressure, and for him to handle all that the way he's been doing, it's impressive. He had that little hiccup there when they put Fleury back in for one game, but Murray went back in without missing a beat. That was really impressive because that could have really gotten him down a little bit. It could have been the turning point. But he wasn't fazed by it. Pretty impressive stuff from a young guy.''

Brodeur, now the assistant GM with the St. Louis Blues, was 23 when he won his first Stanley Cup, in 1994-95, in just his second NHL season. It was all a blur, he says now, but he remembers just putting on the pads, and next thing he knew, it was a two-month run. He suspects that is the case right now for Murray.

"I guarantee you he's going to talk about this experience 10 years down the road and he's going to say, 'You know what? I started to play and I woke up and I had the Stanley Cup above my head,'" Brodeur said. "That's the way I felt, looking back at my first Stanley Cup when I was fairly young. I just put my head down and I played and I played. Never expected to win. Next thing you know, there's the Stanley Cup. I'm sure he'll have a similar feeling a few years down the road if they win here.''

Murray has repeatedly said during this playoff run that he's just trying to enjoy the ride and not look ahead.

Ward, for one, remembers allowing a moment or two during his run to soak it in.

"Sometimes you have to pinch yourself," said Ward. "It's giving me goose bumps just talking about it right now because it brings me back to my experiences that year. I remember playing against the Oilers in the Stanley Cup final. I went out for pregame skate before Game 3, and the first thing I did when I went on the ice was look at my parents' season-ticket seats in Edmonton. I was sitting there watching the Oilers play just two years prior. It's kind of crazy to think about. I was playing for the Red Deer Rebels in junior and three years later I'm in the Stanley Cup finals in my hometown. You're kind of like, 'What?'''

Not that Ward -- much like Murray today -- ever showed any hint of nerves during that run.

"You can tell the way Matt Murray is conducting himself that he's mature beyond his years and has a bright future,'' said Ward.

When Murray was asked Wednesday how he and his team are trying to keep focused while the city of Pittsburgh seems ready to burst with a Game 5 victory, he just shrugged.

"Don't worry about the noise, don't worry about what you can't control, just focus on the task at hand,'' said the native of Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Ho-hum, just another game indeed.

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