PITTSBURGH — This sort of thing can only happen in hockey. It is a few minutes after Game 3 of the Penguins-Capitals series, and the Pittsburgh locker room is quiet and subdued.
“I think we have to forget about that one,” Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said sadly.
“We just have to put that game out of our minds,” right winger Patric Hornqvist said.
“They had the puck all night,” coach Mike Sullivan griped. “And we didn’t.”
“We’d better be much better in Game 4,” the star, Sidney Crosby, said mournfully.
Meanwhile, over on the Washington side, there was a sense of joy about what had just happened.
“That’s our game!” Capitals coach Barry Trotz gushed. “If we can stay with that game … that will be our game.”
All of that would make some sense except for the one thing you already know: The Penguins actually won the game, 3-2.
The reactions were not out of line. This is hockey, especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Capitals dominated the game. They out-shot the Penguins by a staggering margin of 49-23. They spent pretty much the whole game in the Penguins’ zone. They had 12 shots from in front of the net — Pittsburgh had two.
But the Penguins won anyway because Pittsburgh’s rookie goalie Matt Murray played out of his mind. He made 47 saves, but the number doesn’t begin to describe the numerous times he just seemed to materialize in front of what looked to be an open net. “Best player on the ice,” Hornqvist said. “Without him, there is no way we win this game.”
Singular players can influence games in other sports, of course. A great pitcher can essentially shut down a baseball game. A great defensive player can blow up an offense in football. A great player like LeBron James or Cristiano Ronaldo or Carli Lloyd or, yes, Draymond Green, can set the entire rhythm of a game.
But it’s different in hockey because it’s the only sport where one player, one goaltender, can entirely counteract and silence a team that is actually dominating the game. In baseball, yes, a pitcher can vanquish a lineup, but then, by definition, that lineup is, you know, vanquished. A goaltender cannot prevent a team from peppering the net with great shot after great shot. He cannot stop a team from controlling the puck all night. All he can do is keep the puck out of the net.
Of course, that’s all he has to do.
The Capitals should have won Monday’s game by three goals. Instead, they needed a late flurry just to lose 3-2. They made a couple of dreadful mistakes in their own zone, and that cost them two of the three goals allowed.
Then, Murray simply would not allow the puck to go by him, no matter how many shots Alex Ovechkin and company fired at the net.
“Their goalie was very good,” Trotz said. “No question, he was the reason they had success.”
Murray’s overwhelming performance is a good reminder of just how fickle the Hockey Gods can be. He’s 21 years old — five months ago, he was the goaltender for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. He had flashed potential in the AHL, even setting the league record for most consecutive minutes without allowing a goal (304 minutes, 11 seconds). But that’s the AHL. The Penguins had their goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, who led the NHL in shutouts last year and was in goal the last time the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009.
Fleury suffered a concussion on March 31, though, and Murray was pressed into action. He was good. At times, he was very good. Still, it was hard not to look to the bench to see when Fleury would be ready to play again. As it turned out, Monday was the day — Fleury returned to the bench and seemed ready to go. When he was shown on the video board, the crowd erupted with some of the biggest cheers of the night.
So, with Fleury’s return distracting things, few seemed to realize for quite some time just what a spectacular night Murray was having. The Penguins led 3-0 after two periods even though they had been outshot 28-13. There was an easy feeling about the game in Pittsburgh. Washington’s long history of playoff doom, along with a growing sense that the Penguins really do have their mojo back, was carrying the night.
But the third period ended all illusions. The Capitals bombarded the net and the Penguins were all-but-helpless to stop them. There was a theory after the game that the Penguins got too defensive in an effort to hold on to their lead, but it really seemed that the Capitals’ will just overpowered them. Ovechkin — who was sensational all night — scored the first goal, then with a minute left he hit the post with a shot and Justin Williams banged in the rebound.
In the final minute, the Capitals had chance after chance to tie it up, and the crowd groaned at least five relieved “Ohhs!” before time finally expired.
“We could have had two or three go in,” Trotz said.
Teammates and coaches talk all the time about Murray’s extraordinary composure; nothing seems to rattle him. “That was a busy one,” he said of his 47-save evening. He seemed less impressed by what he had done than just about everyone else. “He was awesome all night,” Fleury said. “He kept us in the game. I’m proud of him.”
It’s unclear what the Penguins will do in net the rest of the way. Fleury is one of the best goalies in hockey, if healthy. Murray just won a game single-handedly and has been terrific the entire playoffs.
After the game ended, it was unclear who had really won — it was a bit like a political debate with each side spinning like crazy. The Capitals say they won because they outplayed the Penguins on Pittsburgh ice and because it was obvious right away that the Penguins defenseman Kris Letang would be suspended for at least some time for his hit on Marcus Johansson (he was suspended for Game 4). Trotz talked about how this game reminded him of the Game 3 loss to the Islanders last year, one where he felt like the Capitals came together. “I feel good,” he said.
Meanwhile the Penguins say they won because, you know, they actually won, and they now lead the series 2-1 and because, as Crosby says, “good teams find ways to win when they are not at their best.”
None of it matters if Murray keeps playing like that. That’s hockey.