Matt Murray

Canada beats U.S. 3-0 to close preliminary round of worlds

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KOSICE, Slovakia (AP) — Pierre-Luc Dubois scored early to back the shutout goaltending of Matt Murray, sending Canada past the United States 3-0 on Tuesday at the world hockey championship. Both teams already were assured quarterfinal berths and were competing for seeding.

Canada won Group A and will next play Switzerland. The Americans, who had five won straight, will face the high-scoring and undefeated Russians on Thursday. Finland will face Sweden, while the Czech Republic plays Germany in the round of eight.

Kyle Turris also scored in the first period for Canada, beating Cory Schneider, and Turris assisted on Jared McCann‘s goal in the second period.

Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin scored for Russia, which closed out its dominant play in Group B with a 7-3 win over Sweden. Earlier Tuesday, Leon Draisaitl scored tiebreaking and go-ahead goals late in the third period to life Germany to a 4-2 win over Finland in Group A.

The Czech Republic closed the preliminary round with a 5-4 win over Switzerland in Bratislava in Group B, getting one goal and two assists each from Jakub Voracek and Dominik Simon.

In matchups of teams that won’t advance, Latvia beat Norway 4-1 in Group B, and the host Slovaks outlasted Denmark 2-1 in a shootout decided by penalty shots.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Penguins’ playoff exit was two years in the making

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The Pittsburgh Penguins loss to the New York Islanders was no fluke.

It was a result they earned and was due to them being outplayed and soundly beaten in pretty much every phase of the game by a Islanders team that looked faster, crisper, and smoother.

It was also not the result of something that simply happened overnight.

On the off day between their losses in Games 3 and 4, defender Justin Schultz nailed a big part of the problem when he said this: “Our identity has changed over the years. We play fast and get the puck up quick. That’s what we do best. We haven’t done that this series.”

But when did it change, and more importantly, why did it change?

It has taken the Penguins two years to reach the point where they needed to wait until Game 81 of the regular season to simply make the playoffs, and then could not even scratch out a single win once they got there.

To find when it all began you can probably go back to May 28, 2017.

At the time, the Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champions and just 24 hours away from beginning another Cup Final series against the Nashville Predators that they would win in six games, becoming the first team in a generation to successfully repeat as champions. Their recipe and identity was clear. They played fast, they didn’t let anything throw them off their game, and coach Mike Sullivan had driven home a “Just Play” mantra that became the calling card of their 2016 championship run. It applied to just about any situation.

An injury to a significant player? Just play.

Don’t like a call that was or was not made on the ice? Just play.

Facing some adversity and down in a series? Just. Play.

In the years between their 2009 and 2016 championships the Penguins had become a deeply flawed team that was short on depth around its superstars and had rapidly developed a tendency to unravel whenever things didn’t go their way. They were almost like petulant children that would lose their composure when calls went against them and become almost infatuated with responding to even the slightest physical altercation. They reached rock bottom in this regard during the 2012 and 2013 postseason losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins when they seemed to be playing a game where hits and responses were worth more than goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Starting in 2015, general manager Jim Rutherford started to reshape the team into something different.

He found the right depth players to go around the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, and he made a series of trades and call-ups from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to make the team faster and more skilled throughout the lineup. Combined with Sullivan’s mid-season takeover in 2015, it was a perfect storm that allowed them overwhelm opponents and catch fire sometime around February.

They never slowed down on their way to a championship.

While the 2016-17 season wasn’t quite as dominant and had to rely on goaltending a little more in the playoffs, the same formula was still in play.

Despite all of the winning, Rutherford was still unsatisfied with something.

He was unsatisfied with the way his star players were being treated physically. In each of those postseasons the Penguins had to go through opponents that were not shy about targeting their stars. Crosby’s postseason run-ins with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are well documented, and they had two consecutive postseason encounters with Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals. In the Eastern Conference Final that season there were several incidents against the Ottawa Senators that drew the team’s ire.

The day before the 2017 Stanley Cup Final began, Rutherford offered a look into where the team was going to be headed when he sounded off in an interview with Ken Campbell of The Hockey News. This is the key part:

“I hear year after year how the league and everyone loves how the Penguins play,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “‘They play pure hockey and they skate.’ Well, now it’s going to have to change and I feel bad about it, but it’s the only way we can do it. We’re going to have to get one or two guys…and some of these games that should be just good hockey games will turn into a sh—show. We’ll go right back to where we were in the ’70s and it’s really a shame.”

Emphasis added.

“We’re going to have to get one or two guys.”

He doubled down on it just days after the team won the Stanley Cup.

“We are going to try to add a player or two that maybe we can have more protection in our lineup. That’s not that easy because [coach Mike Sullivan] likes to roll four lines and you’ve got to plug a guy in that can play on a regular basis, but hopefully that’s what we can do.”

That was the moment they started down the wrong path. Suddenly, a team that had become defined by playing through things and not responding was going to get “one or two guys” to … respond. The Penguins hadn’t even finished their run at the top of the league as champions when they made the decision to start slowly deviating off of the path that got them there, all in the name of retribution and the misguided idea of “deterrence.”

On draft night that year, the Penguins flipped their first-round pick and center Oskar Sundqvist to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick, a trade that has turned out to be a significant loss for the Penguins in more ways than one, and it was a bad idea from the start. Not only did they move back 20 spots in the draft, but Sundqvist has turned into a solid third-line center for the Blues (a position the Penguins spent two years and countless assets trying to fill) while Reaves clearly never fit in with the Penguins’ style of play.

Sullivan barely used him, it shortened the team’s bench, and he was ultimately traded halfway through the season in the massive and complicated deal for Derick Brassard.

The problem with that sequence wasn’t necessarily the trade itself, but what it represented.

What it represented was a philosophical shift from the recipe that worked, and there is nothing that has happened since that trade that has put them back on track.

Pretty much every significant roster move the Penguins have made since then (and there have been A LOT of them) has revolved around getting bigger, stronger players, especially on the blue line where Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson were the significant additions over the past year. It resulted in a defense that lacks mobility, doesn’t move the puck well, and has simply zapped them of a lot of their transition game. Add that to the departures of forwards like Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary and the team no longer has the speed and skating advantage that it used to have over its opponents.

The most confusing thing about all of it is the roster construction and many of the moves seem — emphasis on seem — to be at odds with the way the coach has wanted the team to play from the day he arrived behind the bench. I know nothing of the working relationship between Rutherford and Sullivan and whether they remain on the same page as to how the team is built, but the optics of it all just seem strange.

They paid a significant price for Reaves, and the coach didn’t play him. The general manager championed the signing of Johnson all season, and despite playing in all 82 regular season games was deemed to be not worth a roster spot in the first game of the playoffs. A team that wants to play fast and beat teams in transition and with puck possession, suddenly has an inconsistent transition and possession game because the players on the back end can’t make the necessary plays to feed it. And that doesn’t even get into general manager’s fascination with trying to even the score with Wilson in Washington after he knocked Zach Astron-Reese out of the playoffs a year ago (something that ended up getting Oleksiak injured).

Make no mistake, there were other factors at play throughout this season and the playoffs that produced this early exit. The forwards, as a whole, don’t help out enough in the defensive zone. The Islanders did a great job shutting down Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Letang and Schultz, the two defenders on the roster that can still play close to the Penguins’ style, each had a bad series.

But a bad series for individual players happens, and sometimes they are even understandable and defensible because even the best players have bad stretches.

What is not understandable and defensible is willingly taking yourself away from something that worked. That is what the Penguins did, and it is a big part of why their season ended up going the way it did.

The moves they make this summer will tell us a lot as to what they learned from it.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins’ Murray offers up two candidates for save of the year

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There’s nothing a goalie can do that is more spectacular than a desperation paddle save.

The odds of saving a shot with a few inches of composite material are very low, so when they happen, they’re something to marvel at.

It was Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray‘s paddle on Saturday night in a pivotal game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

And my, oh my, was it a save to behold in the first period.

Poor Boone Jenner. He did everything you’re supposed to do to score the goal.

And so did Markus Nutivaara. But he, too, was robbed by a filthy save in the second frame.

The game has been full of highlight-reel saves from Murray, who if not for him, the Penguins would be getting blown out.

Here’s another ridiculous save.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Penguins’ Murray suffers yet another injury

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The Pittsburgh Penguins embarked on a three-game road trip with an all-too-familiar and unpleasant update: Matt Murray is injured.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said that Murray didn’t miss a Wednesday practice because of a maintenance day, instead deeming it an upper-body injury that leaves Murray day-to-day. On the bright side, Sullivan said it was not a concussion, according to reports including Penguins Inside Scoop.

Looking at Murray’s recent injury history, and realizing that teams sometimes describe concussions as upper-body injuries, it’s understandable that some jumped to the concussion conclusion. Murray somehow only missed one game in October with a concussion, and missed nine games with one last season (in March).

The 24-year-old also missed some time in 2018-19 with a lower-body injury, so it feels like the only breaks Murray usually catches are literal ones.

Murray’s season has been up-and-down when he’s actually been on the ice, too. His numbers are a touch disappointing but not disastrous overall (15-9-1, .909 save percentage), yet if you look at his split stats, Murray’s been all over the place; he generated a .959 save percentage in five December games after suffering through an .850 slog in five November contests.

That’s frustrating, and for as brilliant as his postseason work has often been, you have to wonder if the Penguins truly feel that they can count on the two-time Stanley Cup winner.

On the bright side, the Penguins have Casey DeSmith, who’s been as sturdy (.918 save percentage, 13-9-4 record) where Murray’s been more erratic. This latest stretch is another example that the Penguins made a wise value proposition with his extension.

One other bright side: Murray and other injured Penguins are on that three-game road trip, so this might just be a blip on the radar. Those other injured Penguins are Evgeni Malkin and long-injured defenseman Justin Schultz, so things could look up for Pittsburgh in a hurry, if all three situations work out.

Here’s the road trip, which begins in Florida against the Panthers on Thursday:

Feb. 7:  at Florida
Feb. 9: at Tampa Bay
Feb. 11: at Philadelphia

After that, the Penguins play five of six games at home, although one of those “home” games is actually the neutral side 2019 Stadium Series against the Flyers. (With two fairly recent upcoming matches against Philly, the Penguins have to hope that their unfriendly neighbors cool off soon.)

So, overall, it could be worse for Murray and the Penguins, and it has been before. It still must be frustrating for a goalie and team that would really like to solidify not only a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but also ideally enter the postseason on a high note.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Murray close to returning to Penguins’ net

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues as the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday Night Hockey at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

(UPDATE: DeSmith will get the start vs. the Blackhawks and Murray will back up.)

Another injury to Matt Murray once again complicated matters in the Penguins’ net. But as they did last season, the duty to help keep things afloat rested on the goalie pads of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith.

Since Murray exited the lineup with a nagging lower-body injury that he tried to play through, it’s been DeSmith taking the No. 1 reins and helping the Penguins earn points in eight of his nine starts. A .920 even strength save percentage has also helped them stay in the Eastern Conference playoff mix when things were looking down just a short while ago.

Complicating matters regarding Murray’s return has been the lack of practice time. With games just about every other day, the Penguins don’t have more than one full day off until the Christmas break, a period where no practices are allowed. Factor in travel days as well and it’s been tough to get him regular work.

“Logistically it makes it a little bit more of a challenge because ideally we’d like to get these guys into a team setting before we put them back into game scenarios,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan after Monday’s morning skate on Long Island. “In this instance, based on the realities of our schedule, that’s going to be a little bit more difficult.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Murray participated in a full practice Tuesday at United Center as the Penguins prepared for Wednesday’s game against the Blackhawks. He’s been skating for a week and did not rule himself out of starting in Chicago, citing a good amount of progression in his recovery.

“The thing I was dealing with was lingering and getting worse and worse, but still not enough to come out,” he said. “Eventually it got bad enough where you just need some time to rest it. I’m not going to use it as an excuse. I was sore, but it was nothing to come out of play. I was playing with it for a few weeks and it was fine. I just tweaked it one day. It didn’t hinder many parts of my game. It’s a specific place. Just giving it time to heal is the biggest thing.”

The fact that Murray has missed so much time to fully heal and not continue to play through injury is encouraging to Sullivan, who is confident the 24-year-old netminder’s season will only improve now.

“Sometimes when you have the opportunity to get away from it a little bit and get a fresh start, I think from a mental standpoint it can be refreshing for a player,” said Sullivan. “Physically for Matt, he’s going to be in a much better position to be at his best.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.