Flavell: Rust, Murray key to revival of Penguins’ season

It wouldn’t be hockey season without a slow start from the Penguins and an increasingly larger panic throughout their fan base. That is exactly what we’ve had on tap this year.

Every year we get the “but it’s different this year” and “there’s no way they come out of this one”. And every year, inevitably, the Penguins get out of it.

That is not to say the Penguins, now at 16-12-6 following their win against the Capitals on Wednesday, are out of the slump. That just wouldn’t be true. But they did look much better in this game.

Two guys who have started as slow as anyone this season are goaltender Matt Murray and forward Bryan Rust.

Rust went 22 games without a single goal. Certainly, he isn’t a prolific goal scorer and won’t light the lamp 30 times a year. But consistently scoring 15-20 goals isn’t out of the question. He sees enough time with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to reach the plateau.

What made his drought even more frustrating was that it followed a healthy extension in the offseason. He was quickly falling into Chris Boswell territory, dare I say.

Okay, not quite.

But it was hard. It took a hat trick against the Blackhawks to get his season turned around. He has been buzzing in every game since. He is back to being a holy terror.

What is even more perplexing is the fall of Murray.

We are only a year and a half removed from him dominating the NHL on two separate occasions in the playoffs. He became a household name that vaulted himself among the names of Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist.

Now, when you think young goaltenders, your mind goes more towards John Gibson and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Murray’s name is still thrown around in the discussion only because of his playoff resume.

Wednesday, the Penguins got the performance out of Murray they have needed for a while. He stopped 31-of-32 shots en route to the 2-1 victory. He had a few close calls squeak through his equipment and needed defenseman Marcus Pettersson‘s crazy heroics on one of them. But he was largely there when the Penguins needed it.

For a position as mental as goaltending, Murray needs all the saves and luck he can get right now. A hot goalie at an elite level is something that wins you games, and ultimately championships, as we’ve seen twice now in Murray’s case.

Many were ready to anoint Casey DeSmith the starting goaltender as recently as the weekend. He has played well enough to deserve the talk. But Murray is and should be the guy. The Penguins didn’t discard Marc-Andre Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights only to boot out the guy they made room for just two years later.

What does this all mean? Simply one thing: These two guys getting hot could mean the world to the Penguins.

Head coach Mike Sullivan‘s penchant for changing the lines on a frequent basis this season has frustrated many people. Rust finding his game (seven points in five games) could provide stability as he has spent sometime with Crosby and winger Jake Guentzel the past few games. Crosby would much rather find consistent line mates than go through a carousel of wingers as he has this season.

And the whole goalie thing? Nobody wants another goalie controversy. No one had to deal with it when it was Fleury’s net. Murray came along and every game it was a debate about who should play. Now, Murray should have the net all to himself and yet there are still questions.

Nobody wants Murray to find his game more than the man himself. He is as hard on himself as any athlete out there. He revels in his success and feels utter disappointment in his failure.

A confident Murray is an elite goaltender. The way to gain confidence is games like Wednesday. A game where you can look over your shoulder and not see the puck in the net. The numbers are high but they’ll continue to shrink with every passing game like this one.

Want a resurgence? More useful depth and elite goaltending are big ways to kick start that resurgence. That is what Rust and Murray can provide for Pittsburgh.

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