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On Hockey: Stanley Cup Final: Sharks-Pens, and Matt Murray

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Lots of hockey. Lots of golf. Other sports too. 

On Hockey: Stanley Cup Final: Sharks-Pens, and Matt Murray

Minivan Dad

When Mark Andre Fleury was singlehandedly keeping the Pittsburgh Penguins relevant during a slow (ok, abysmal, given expectations) start that ultimately led to the dismissal of Head Coach Mike Johnston, no one would have suspected that now 22-year old Matt Murray would be backstopping the Penguins through the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But here we are. Fleury sustained a significant concussion in March, his second of the season, which opened the door for Murray, an heir-apparent in the Pittsburgh system with a winning pedigree at all sub-NHL levels of hockey. 

He was terrific in his regular season audition, but had to miss the first few games of the first round due to an upper body injury (sustained by his head from Brayden Schenn’s knee in the Pens’ season finale). Jeff Zatkoff started the series against the Rangers, and gave way to Murray once he was healthy. Murray’s started all but one game since, as the Pens defeated the Rangers, Capitals, and Lightning en route to the Stanley Cup Final. He was given Game 5 off against the Lightning after giving up 4 goals in Game 4, either because his old AHL coach Mike Sullivan is a genius and thought he needed a day off, or because Sully had Fleury on the bench and just-kinda-had-to-know. It was clear that Fleury wasn't ready for full-game duty during the Game 5 overtime loss, so Murray returned to help clinch the Final berth with victories in Games 6 and 7. The Pens have continued their winning ways with 3-2 and 2-1(OT) victories in the opening games of the Stanley Cup Final.

To the general public, Murray’s been sensational. He shows the Holy Trinity of broadcast TV goaltending strengths - he’s “calm, cool, and collected’- not to mention “incredibly poised for someone his age.” He’s also able to “make timely saves,” especially “the saves he needs to make.” And, he’s really “athletic.”

In reality, he's been fine. The Penguins have played stellar hockey in front of him. They’ve controlled the puck in the far end of the ice, and their attacking style of defensive zone coverage has prevented opponents from generating complex offensive chances against him.

That’s not to say that Murray isn’t a very good young goalie. He is, and he has a solid NHL future. The NHL, though, is a completely different animal from any other level of competition he has faced, and he has flaws that can be exploited. Nick Mercadante (@NMercad) has been consistently critical of Murray’s post integration techniques. These issues contributed to at least four goals this postseason, including both San Jose goals in Game 1. Nick is not alone.

Chris Boyle of Sportsnet pointed out a lateral movement issue evident on several earlier playoff goals. Elliott Friedman shared an “insider tip” about his glove hand in his 30 Thoughts column. Kevin Woodley of InGoal Magazine and NHL.com recently posted his excellent Final goaltending preview, in which he also mentions an early paddle-down tendency that exposes the high blocker corner. Paul Campbell (@PGC77) points out Murray’s “drop asymmetry,” in which his leg pads don’t reach the ice simultaneously as he transitions to his butterfly, wreaking havoc with his ice and body seals. A common theme of the criticism focuses on the fact that he lowers his shoulders asymmetrically depending on where he reads the shot, opening either the top glove corner of the net or, less frequently, the top blocker corner. (For the record, no, this is not the same criticism as the ubiquitous broadcast TV “he’s down early!”)

Watching the games, it would seem that San Jose has been actively reading #goalieTwitter, and though they are targeting Murray’s high glove corner on clean shots, they've yet to score there. I think they’re missing a different, possibly more effective opportunity.

Is Murray vulnerable to high glove snipes, particularly when there’s lateral motion factoring in as well? I’d agree he is. Know what? So are a huge number of other NHL goalies. Many of them play with a “fingers-up” hand position, which Murray now does, which essentially initiates a downward, clockwise glove rotation on almost any glove side shot. Similarly, goalies who start with their hand lower may simply not be able to raise their glove fast enough, or might rotate their bodies off the puck as they raise their glove. Ben Bishop turns his upper body almost 60 degrees off the puck on some shots, and he’s a Vezina trophy finalist. Point is, these guys aren’t giving up 4 goals a game over their gloves, and neither is Murray.

My own personal target would be his 6-hole, between his right arm and his body. He’s given up 3 goals through it, on shots without significant lateral movement.

Steven Stamkos almost tied game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final by sneaking one through, which just caught the edge of Murray’s jersey and rib padding, and fluttered wide.

Trying to score “through the body” against an NHL goaltender isn’t often an effective strategy, because most of them aren’t vulnerable between their arms and bodies (the 6- and 7-holes). That’s the thing about Murray, though. Until a month ago, he wasn’t an NHL goaltender, and he still has an exploitable 6-hole gap.

Kevin Woodley was nice enough to volunteer to me on Twitter that part of the reason Murray has this gap is that he is particularly focused on maintaining square 5-hole stick coverage along the ice.

So, as he drops his body down, his stick paddle acts as a lever, pushing his elbow up or out relative to his body, creating a gap under his right armpit. If he’s turning into a shot or moving laterally as he drops, the gap becomes more prominent.

It’s not just Murray, by the way, it’s physics. Goalies address those physics in different ways. Some push their blocker forward as they drop, allowing their stick blade to slide forward and angle up, while others allow the stick blade to rotate slightly as their blocker hand moves in toward the body. Eventually, Murray does this too; there’s just a slight delay.

It’s a correctable issue, and one that obviously hasn't significantly hurt Murray during his meteoric rise through the ranks. But AHL shooters aren't Nhl shooters, and if I’m San Jose coach Pete DeBoer (I’m not, for the record), I’m having my guys throw some pucks to the right of Murray’s Speedy Penguin logo.

There’s more to this than just thinking that the Sharks might score through Matt Murray’s armpit. I see it as a chance for San Jose to improve their offensive possession efficacy and slow down Pittsburgh’s transition game. No, seriously. Let’s examine the circumstances and possible outcomes of high glove as compared to 6-hole shot attempts. (The beauty of this exercise is that we can deal with small sample sizes and possibilities, rather than large sample sizes and probabilities. I mean, I’m a huge believer in analytics, but I hate it when they don't agree with my opinion!) 

First, some discussion about the shot targets. A high glove corner shot does not have a particularly large target, and it presumes that Murray will, in fact, show his tendency to drop his shoulder. He might not, in which case the target becomes even smaller. It also requires a relatively settled, rather than rolling or on-edge, puck, since the shooter needs to be as accurate as possible. The shooter has to clearly see the target, and have enough space to be able to achieve an adequate stick flex and release for accuracy and power.

Now let’s say the shooter instead intends to shoot to Murray’s 6-hole. First of all, though the absolute gap may not be wider than a puck or two, the target has vertical forgiveness. A little high, or a little low, and there’s still space to get through. Theoretically, this vertical forgiveness should also reduce the effect of defensive pressure that limits the forward’s ability to flex his stick or complete his necessary follow through to fully elevate the shot. Second, this is a much easier target to estimate. Somewhere to the right of the middle of the net is easier to guess than a 6-inch square in the top corner, and San Jose’s shooters might be quicker to shoot, negating the Penguins’ superb shot blocking. Last, this opportunity is less dependent on Murray’s tendencies and more concerned with physics. Murray may, or may not, drop his glove on a high shot. He very likely will open his 6-hole temporarily as he drops.

Ok, so the 6-hole is an easier target against a vulnerability that’s more likely to occur. (Say “Ok”!) Now, what about the potential outcomes for each attempt?

If a player shoots at the small target above Murray’s glove, what can happen? 

1- Murray reads the shot correctly, doesn't drop his glove, and makes the save, resulting in a face off. 

2- The player scores, and Eddie Olzczyk and Pierre McGuire dislocate their own shoulders patting themselves on the back for their goalie scouting abilities. 

3- The shot beats Murray but misses the net, either clanging off the iron or missing high/wide, making a very impressive loud noise as the puck crashes against the glass. Against the Penguins this postseason, there’s a good chance it then becomes an odd-man rush the other way. (That’s not guaranteed, it just seems that way…)

How about shooting for the 6-hole?

1- Murray closes up his gap and makes the save with his body, either controlling the puck for a faceoff or allowing a rebound. 

2- Murray makes the save with his blocker, either directing it to safety or allowing a rebound. (Given the extra blocker motion to close the gap, he may be less able to actively direct rebounds, but I have no evidence to back that up!)

3- The puck goes through the gap cleanly for a goal. 

4- The puck sneaks through, like Stamkos’ shot, either for a goal or a soft back side rebound that might lead to a back door tap-in, continued possession, or at worst a contested breakout. 

5- The shot might be low, and rebound off his stick and/or right pad. A complete high/wide is much less likely given the original target, but it could happen too, as well as posts or crossbars.

Notice that I used the word rebound a lot there, but not when discussing the high glove snipe. In other words, this won't happen shooting high glove:

Rebounds are extremely important for San Jose if they are to come back and win this series, not only because of potential scoring opportunities, but because of their effect on possession and transition. How so? Again, small sample and theorizing, but here goes. 

If a shooter scores on a high glove attempt, that’s great, but otherwise it’s not likely to lead to net-front chaos because rebounds are less likely off of a catching glove. Pittsburgh is killing San Jose on face-offs so far this series, so a held glove save is more than likely the end of San Jose’s possession. Even if a missed shot doesn't lead to an immediate change of possession, the puck is likely to end up in a low-danger region on the perimeter of the ice, giving the Penguins a chance to regroup defensively. 

And what about the worst case scenario? After 2 games of watching Pittsburgh’s transition speed, I’d want to eliminate the breakout-off-the-high/wide miss pretty much until the end of the series. If more of San Jose’s missed chances result in either face-offs or contested, scoring zone rebounds, the Penguins’ defensemen and low forwards know they have to be moving toward their own net or goal line once a shot is taken. That’ll slow down the transition game. 

Now back to Murray. San Jose has targeted Matt Murray’s potential high glove vulnerability, but they haven't scored there. I’d suggest that Murray knows his glove is an issue for him.

He switched his glove position during the season, for Pete’s sake. He’s expecting to be attacked there, and so far it hasn’t stopped the Penguins from winning playoff series. How about the Sharks throw a few shots to his 6-hole instead? He knows he’s had a few get through there already. Maybe he starts to cheat a little to protect his 6-hole, and that high glove corner suddenly has 2-3 more inches of net to shoot at. Even if he doesn’t let any goals slip through, there are more potentially favorable outcomes for San Jose arising from the shot attempt than there are from a high glove snipe.

So… the point? San Jose needs to make their offensive possessions more effective, and counteract Pittsburgh’s transition game. I’m suggesting a pretty easy fix. As I see it, the Sharks are more likely to retain possession, generate additional scoring chances, and slow down Pittsburgh’s transition offense just by shooting a few more pucks 6-hole on a rookie goalie. 

Sure, that rookie looks like he’s pretty unfazed by the pressure. But people are human, especially 22-year old goalies with less than 40 NHL games under their belt. There is no other level of competition that compares to the NHL Playoffs. Strengths and weaknesses can get redefined in a hurry. The Sharks need to make Matt Murray start wondering which is which. If they can, maybe they’ll slow the rest of the Penguins down in the process.