‘Sully’ knows best: Coach rewarded for giving Murray second chance



Rookie goaltender Matt Murray (30) has the Pittsburgh Penguins in position to clinch the Stanley Cup on Thursday. (TNS)

By Steve Rotstein / Sports Editor

Pittsburgh Penguins rookie goaltender Matt Murray has been far from perfect in the Stanley Cup Finals, but he still has his team one win away from lifting a fourth Stanley Cup trophy.

With one more standout performance, Murray could be hoisting the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP along with it.

And to think, just a short time ago, Murray lost his starting job and watched the Tampa Bay Lightning push his team to the brink of elimination.

After veteran goalie Marc-Andre Fleury replaced Murray in net to start the third period in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals and nearly sparked a comeback from a 4-0 deficit, I was one of many who believed he earned the right to start Game 5.

“The Flower” — who had been sidelined by a concussion since March 31, while Murray helped guide the team through the playoffs — was given that chance by Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan.

Sullivan’s decision backfired, resulting in a 4-3 overtime loss where Fleury faded down the stretch.

I still thought Fleury deserved a chance to redeem himself in Game 6 with the Penguins’ season on the line, but Sullivan knew better. Facing a 3-2 series deficit, he decided to turn back to his rookie netminder, who has played like a seasoned veteran since Fleury went down.

“[Murray]’s been thrown into a tough situation, and he’s handled it extremely well. So at this particular point in the season … we don’t have the luxury … of allowing players to play through things,” Sullivan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette before Game 6. “We have to win a hockey game. And that’s how we looked at it.”

Murray rewarded his coach’s decision by saving 28 of 30 shots — including 17 saves in the third period — in an elimination game on the road.

The Penguins’ 5-2 victory forced a decisive Game 7 back in Pittsburgh, where Murray was equally efficient. He stopped 16 of 17 shots in a 2-1 win to propel the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they now hold a 3-1 series lead over the San Jose Sharks.

But just a couple days ago, Penguins fans were all but calling for Murray’s head after the 22-year-old let up the game-tying goal on a routine slap shot in the third period of an eventual 3-2 overtime loss in Game 3 of the Finals.

It was a soft goal no doubt, one Murray saw all the way and simply let slip through his glove. But he also made numerous key saves to give the Penguins a chance to win, and this time I didn’t even consider the idea of benching him.

Turning back to Fleury again at this point of the season was not an option. Teams simply don’t replace a starting goaltender midway through the Stanley Cup Finals, especially with a series lead.

Sullivan stuck with Murray, who rebounded from his off night as he has all throughout the playoffs — victoriously.

The rookie made plenty of big saves in Game 4 and stood tall late, stopping 23 of 24 shots in a 3-1 win. He is now 5-0 in the playoffs in games following a loss.

Game 4 was the first time in the series Murray outplayed his counterpart, Sharks goalie Martin Jones. He was outshined by Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and Washington’s Braden Holtby as they stood up to the Penguins’ offensive onslaught in the previous two rounds.

But Murray has been solid all along and played well enough to outlast Vasilevskiy, Holtby and Henrik “The King” Lundqvist to get this far. The Stanley Cup will be in the building at Consol Energy Center Thursday night, and Murray’s presence in goal is a big reason why.

Sullivan believed in his rookie goalie when others lost faith, choosing to go back to Murray over Fleury — a proven Stanley Cup winner — with the season on the line.

Unafraid to shuffle his lineup, Sullivan made a bold decision. Now the Penguins have a chance to dance with Lord Stanley.

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