The superstar core of the Pittsburgh Penguins—Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang—were under the gun. A friend of mine in Pittsburgh said candidly that if their era passed with “only” one Stanley Cup than it would be a failure.
I used only in quotes because that’s a tough standard and I’m not sure I think it’s fair. But there’s no question that the Penguin superstars would not have stood out in history without multiple Stanley Cups. After last night they have them, and they have some good luck to thank for it.
Marc-Andre Fleury had been the man in goal for Pittsburgh and that—combined with general defensive softness, I had usually found the Penguins to be overrated as a playoff team. The offensive flow is great over a long regular season and they were always good for impressive numbers. But playoff hockey is different. You get away with more physicality and everybody plays defense harder. Pittsburgh was ill-suited for it.
The playoff losses piled up—a humiliating four-game sweep to Boston in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, a team that was everything Pittsburgh wasn’t—tough and with strong goal-tending. There was that blown 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers a year later, a team with Henrik Lundqvist in goal. Those were just the most noteworthy in six years of spring disappointments.
Somewhere along the line Pittsburgh got smart. They realized you didn’t need to have five or six offensive superstars. They made two different coaching changes until they struck gold with Matt Sullivan. They stopped leaving their goaltenders exposed all the time. And late in the regular season, with the team already surging down the stretch, they got the final piece of luck.
Fleury was injured and Matt Murray was summoned to take his place. Murray promptly recorded an outstanding 93 percent save rate and held the job going into the playoffs. It’s this reason, and this reason alone that Pittsburgh wasn’t eliminated by the Washington Capitals in the second round, the series that was the de facto championship round.
Murray was great in the playoffs, his 92.3% save rate against the best competition in hockey almost matching his outstanding performance at the end of the regular season. If Fleury had stayed in goal, the Pens would still have been a nice team. But they needed big-time goaltending to win the Stanley Cup and with Murray they finally got it.
That’s what makes denying Murray the Conn Smythe Award so manifestly unjust. The voters took the easy way out and just gave it to Crosby, the most recognizable player. This is the equivalent of just giving the Super Bowl MVP to the quarterback because you don’t want to figure out who mattered most.
From the start of the postseason to the finish, Matt Murray was on his game. He took out the best team in the league in the Capitals, a series where the Caps actually played reasonably well. When Sullivan had a panic moment midway through the Eastern Conference Finals and went back to Fleury, it put the Penguins in a 3-2 series hole. Re-enter Murray and the result is two quick wins.
I’m not sure what else Matt Murray has to do to earn his place in history as the most valuable player of the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs. But whatever he does in his career going forward, he’s always going to be the man who saved the legacies of his more illustrious teammates.