SAN JOSE, Calif. – This journey began 270 days ago with a six-hour bus ride from Pittsburgh to London, Ont.
It included a stop in Providence, R.I., on the opening night of the American Hockey League season and a game in Springfield, Mass., where 2,308 fans turned up at MassMutual Center. There was even a night where Matt Murray gave up five goals on 14 first-period shots in Hartford before getting pulled.
And yet, improbably – incredibly – here he stands now.
One victory away from lifting the Stanley Cup.
“It just goes to show you that you can never predict what’s going to happen,” Murray said Monday from a podium at SAP Center, the man of the moment during a press conference being carried live on both sides of the border.
When this is all over, however it ends, he is going to have a lot to process this summer.
Consider that Murray made his first ever visit to California during the Stanley Cup Final because the Penguins drew the San Jose Sharks in this series. He’ll leave here with some good memories after a 23-save victory in Game 4 that put his team on the precipice of greatness.
How to sum up this most unlikely of seasons?
I mean we’re talking about a young man that only celebrated his 22nd birthday during the Eastern Conference final.
This may not quite be Ken Dryden – who played out of his mind as an unlikely starter while leading the Montreal Canadiens to the 1971 Stanley Cup – but it’s not too far off. If the Penguins manage to close out the Sharks at home on Thursday, or in Games 6 or 7 for that matter, Murray will match a NHL record with 15 post-season victories by a rookie in one spring.
That puts him in the company of Patrick Roy (1986), Ron Hextall (1987) and Cam Ward (2006).
His 14th may have been the toughest of them all with San Jose pushing to even the series. The Penguins played uncharacteristically passive after building a 2-0 lead and needed Murray to come up big in order to close it out.
His left pad save on Joel Ward in the second period stands out, as does the one a couple minutes later where he got his arm on a dangerous Logan Couture chance. Sharks captain Joe Pavelski is the leading goal-scorer in these playoffs and still hasn’t found the back of the net in this series. He was denied on five shots in Game 4.
“Right now with the hole we’re in, a goal or two probably changes the outcome,” said Pavelski. “The way it’s been going for most of the post-season I feel like I should probably have a bit more.”
Murray has put to rest any notion of a sophomore slump.
Big things were expected of him when he smashed AHL records in his first pro campaign a year ago, but no one could have seen them arriving this soon. Had Marc-Andre Fleury not suffered a concussion on March 31, Murray probably would have spent the playoffs opening the door on the bench.
Instead, he’s likely grabbed hold of the No. 1 job for good.
“He’s just flourished,” said defenceman Ian Cole.
Murray has come an incredibly long way from being part of the Penguins entry at the London rookie tournament back in September. Typically, only a small handful of guys in that event play a game or two in the NHL during the same season – although Pittsburgh bucks the trend with Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary also taking part.
The coach of that team was Mike Sullivan, who started the year with Murray in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and felt comfortable throwing him in a NHL crease after getting promoted by the Penguins on Dec. 12.
He’s also stuck with him during the rare moments things haven’t gone to plan. Murray is now 5-0 during these playoffs in games following a loss and managed to keep his confidence in the last round after seeing Fleury start one game in his place.
His secret is much more mental than technical. He’s got an unwavering belief.
“I don’t think it’s something you can teach, I don’t think it’s something you can learn from experience,” said Cole. “I think it’s a personality trait.”
To hear Murray discuss his process is to be told about something that is much easier said than done. Just imagine quieting the voice in your own mind while performing in front of a massive audience.
“My mindset has been this whole time to stay in the moment, take things as they come, focus on being in the present and taking things one shot at a time,” he said.
It’s taken him a long way up the mountain. It’s taken him to heights he may never see again in a profession as unpredictable as this one.
Murray is still living out of a temporary apartment in Pittsburgh and doesn’t have enough seniority to park his truck in the Penguins main player lot. He’s also one game away from grabbing a 35-pound silver trophy and getting to throw a big party this summer in his hometown of Thunder Bay, Ont.
“Like I said from Day 1, I’m just trying to have fun through all this,” said Murray. “It’s been an absolute blast so far.”
What a ride.