There’s often an appetite among folks who settle these matters to dress up legacies so they persist in the annals of hockey history.
Perhaps this practice is most common with the Conn Smythe Trophy, when flash-in-the-pan potential in the Stanley Cup Playoffs often sees unlikely candidates briefly overshadow the superstars that do the heavy lifting over longer periods of time.
In the eyes of some, superstar bias was evident as recent as last season when Sidney Crosby was selected, somewhat contentiously, as the most valuable player for the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. There were other worthy candidates, but the opportunity to crown the captain with the only outstanding award for his incredible career – and augment a legacy that could now compare with some of the greatest of all time – made splitting hairs simple for the majority of voters.
Perhaps Phil Kessel, the Penguins’ points leader, or Kris Letang, the motor on the back end, had a more profound impact over those two months. But it was hard to deny Crosby hadn’t earned it.
One year later, there’s a similar debate shaping up with the Penguins, who are now two wins away from defending their title after Wednesday’s 4-1 win over the Nashville Predators in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Incredibly, the Conn Smythe picture appears even more crowded this time with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and even rookie forward Jake Guentzel making a push. But looking at the Penguins for their entire body of work, and evaluating these two (potential) championship runs as a single semi-dynastic moment in time, goaltender Matt Murray might be as important as any player on the Penguins roster in this pursuit of history.
As absurd as it may sound, the 23-year-old rookie netminder chasing a second ring deserves a piece of individual hardware to accompany the legacy he’s establishing.
Even if he just parachuted in two weeks ago.
An oddity for sure, but a Conn Smythe Trophy would be perfectly befit Murray, whose young career has been unusual, exceptional, and extraordinary in every definition of the word.
Murray has a remarkable overall record of 20-7 in his Stanley Cup playoffs career with his 37-save performance over the Predators in Game 2. Most of that progress came in the title run he anchored last season, but the argument can be made that he’s had an even greater impact in only six starts this time around.
This is partly due to the unfavorable circumstances he entered the postseason under. The Penguins finally appeared taxed, leading head coach Mike Sullivan to make the difficult decision to sit Marc-Andre Fleury, again, interrupting the beloved former starter’s Conn Smythe bid of his own, which he embarked on after stepping in to replace Murray after he was injured in warmups before Game 1 versus the Columbus Blue Jackets.
No matter how incredibly cordial the relationship is between these two netminders, making this transition for a second time, in the context of Fleury’s resurgence and the upcoming expansion pinch, had to make it an incredibly delicate situation.
If it were distressing at all, however, it never showed.
In four games versus the Ottawa Senators, and now two against the Predators, Murray has confidently backstopped five wins to one loss with a postseason-best .943 save percentage and 1.54 goals-against average. And he had to be that remarkable; Pittsburgh needed virtually every single save he made behind its wobbling back line to escape the Senators by only the slightest of margins.
All told, Murray can only make roughly a third of Pittsburgh’s starts in these playoffs and claim less than half of its wins. For this reason, he might have to downright burglarize the Predators to capture the award outright.
But there might be a solution to the matter. On the Sportsnet panel, Elliotte Friedman floated out the idea of having Murray and Fleury share in the award if the Penguins do indeed repeat as Stanley Cup winners.
With a combined .930 save percentage, it’s an idea that’s easy to endorse.
Not only would this be a fitting acknowledgement for the ever-gracious Fleury, who may be walking into the (Vegas?) sunset with expansion looming, but also a perfect way to recognize the incumbent, who has been as responsible as any Penguin for this sensational 18-month ride.
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