PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray tries to keep it simple. Show up for work. Try to improve a little bit each day. Don’t get too high or too low.
Yes, it’s boring. It’s also highly effective for a player who has regained his confidence and swagger just in time to re-establish his team as one of the league’s best.
Murray stopped 36 shots in a 5-1 victory over Florida on Tuesday night to improve to 8-0 since returning from a lower-body injury. Shaky and uncertain in October and November, the 24-year-old has responded with the arguably the best stretch of his career, heady territory considering he already has a pair of Stanley Cup rings.
Murray has a 1.24 goals-against average and a .966 save percentage during the unbeaten run that began on Dec. 15. While occasionally sloppy play by his teammates kept Murray plenty busy against the Panthers, he hardly appeared bothered while pushing the Penguins to their ninth win in their last 10 games.
“It’d be nice to have a few more games where you don’t give them that many grade-A chances where guys are in all alone and forcing him to make the saves he had to make consistently,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who picked up his 20th goal of the season. “But it was one of those games he played great again.”
It was a level of play Murray lacked during the opening two months. He was 4-5-1 with a 4.08 goals against in his first 11 appearances before a lingering lower-body injury sent him to injured reserve in mid-November. Casey DeSmith played solidly in Murray’s place and the Penguins didn’t exactly rush Murray back into net once he was medically cleared.
Yet any notion of a goaltending controversy has evaporated. Murray has reasserted himself as the starter. While the Panthers controlled play for long stretches, Murray kept them at bay to keep Florida winless in its last seven trips to Pittsburgh.
“Give their goalie credit, he played really well,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. “Ours didn’t.”
Florida’s Roberto Luongo surrendered goals to Tanner Pearson and Bryan Rust in the first game’s first 3:03 was pulled after giving up four goals over the first 29 minutes, including short-handed scores by Rust and Riley Sheahan in the second that pushed Pittsburgh’s advantage to 4-0. Luongo finished with 12 saves on 16 shots before being removed in favor of James Reimer.
Aaron Ekblad’s goal late in the second period gave him 62 in his career — the most ever by a Florida defenseman — but the Panthers never recovered from the early deficit.
“Obviously, we try to prepare as best as we possibly can,” Ekblad said. “It’s on us as the leadership group to get the room ready, have the room prepared to play each night. We haven’t done that. It’s been guys, including myself, in the leadership group that haven’t got the job done early in games.”
The Penguins saw their season-high eight-game winning streak end Sunday night against Chicago but wasted little time getting back on track.
Pearson took a slick pass off the boards by Marcus Pettersson and raced down the right side before slipping the puck between Luongo’s legs 1:29 into the game. Rust doubled the lead 94 seconds later, collecting a feed from Jake Guentzel in front of Luongo and deking by the goaltender before tumbling into the net.
The Panthers pressed in an effort to draw even but Murray kept Pittsburgh’s lead intact, including a stop on a short-handed breakaway by Colton Sceviour near the end of a busy first period in which Murray faced 15 shots.
“If a team gets chances on our power play it’s usually a turnover, 2-on-1, something like that, so it happens. You’ve got to be ready for that,” Murray said.
While Pittsburgh’s electric power play looked listless, the penalty killers made up for it. Matt Cullen and Rust broke in 2-on-2, a sequence that ended with Cullen hitting Rust in front of the net and Rust beating Luongo to make it 3-0 just 3:04 into the second. Sheahan pushed it to 4-0 less than six minutes later when he stripped the puck from Florida’s Keith Yandle, skated high into the Florida zone and whipped a wrist shot from the slot over Luongo’s glove for Pittsburgh’s 10th short-handed goal of the season.
“I think we’re trying to skate a little bit more, trying to be a little bit more aggressive up ice,” Rust said. “And I guess (the goals) are just a product of that.”
NOTES: The last time the Penguins had multiple short-handed goals in a game was on March 29, 2016 against Buffalo. … Florida fell to 9-11-2 on the road. … Pittsburgh F Patric Hornqvist left in the first period and did not return after getting hit with a puck. … Crosby has 20 goals in 12 seasons, tying a franchise record set held by team owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux. … Both teams went 0 for 4 on the power play.
Panthers: Continue a five-game road swing on Thursday in Edmonton.
Penguins: Begin a five-game West Coast trip on Friday in Anaheim.