But Murray cooly dealt with those nerves and helped the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-1 victory and a 2-1 series lead.
Murray suffered a concussion in the regular season finale on April 9 and didn’t return to practice with his Penguins teammates until Monday. His showing that day was enough for the 21-year-old netminder to feel ready to return to gameplay, and for his head coach to feel comfortable in naming him the Game 3 starter.
“I’m not a guy who likes to take a lot in practice anyway,” Murray said. “I don’t need much to really feel like I have to stay sharp. I think one practice was enough. I just tried to really push myself in that practice, obviously, because I hadn’t seen any action in a long time.”
The butterflies were there for Murray, a 2012 third-round pick by the Penguins. But once the Rangers got the first of their 17 shots on him, he started to settle. It also helped that his teammates did a good job at keeping the Rangers shots mostly on the perimeter and out of high-danger areas while limiting their time in the offensive zone.
After Sidney Crosby’s power play goal tied the game with 42 seconds left in the first period, the Penguins and Rangers traded chances in the second frame, but to no avail. Then 4:16 into the third period, Matt Cullen chipped a puck between two New York defensemen and beat Henrik Lundqvist five-hole on a breakaway to snap the 1-1 tie.
Cullen, who scored 16 goals and 32 points in the regular season, was praised by Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan afterward for his contributions and dressing room presence.
Despite his status as the wise old sage at 39 years old, Cullen wasn’t planning to impart any words of wisdom to calm a nervous Murray before the game.
“[I] stay outta his way. He’s knows what he’s doing,” Cullen said. “I stay out of his way. He’s done a great job. It’s fun to see. He comes with a smile on his face and he’s got a great confident attitude. I love it."
Murray’s absence coupled with Marc-Andre Fleury’s injury status caused Sullivan to turn to Jeff Zatkoff for Games 1 and 2. Fleury wasn’t even dressed for Game 3 and his return remains in limbo with the teams back at Madison Square Garden Thursday night.
While the Penguins were missing Fleury and going with goaltender No. 3 on the depth chart, Murray was smart about his recovery and not pressing to return before he was ready. Any setback could have put him out even longer and throwing the team’s crease situation in flux.
The wait paid off and the dreams Murray had growing up of playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs finally came to fruition. Controlling the emotions wasn’t easy.
“Big focus of mine was not to get too far ahead of myself and really just be in the moment and not think about all the noise that’s going on around the game and just focus on the task at hand,” Murray said, “and I think I was able to do that.”
Both Cullen and Sullivan pointed to Murray’s demeanor after the game, noting his confidence in goal, which is something that can spread throughout a team during a game.
With the way Murray played during the regular season (9-2-1, one shutout, .933 even strength save percentage), it’s easy to see why the Penguins feel so comfortable with him in goal -- which means Fleury can take his time to recover.
Before the focus shifts to Game 4 Thursday night and the chance to go back to CONSOL Energy Center with a 3-1 series lead, Murray will take some time to enjoy his dream that came true.
“Can’t compare [feeling], especially at this arena I don’t think,” Murray said. “This is what you dream about, playing in the NHL, playing in the playoffs. I’ve never experienced anything like it.”
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