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Goaltending resurgence keeps Penguins in championship hunt

Updated 4 hours ago

Editor’s note: As the Pittsburgh Penguins hit their bye week, beat writer Jonathan Bombulie looks at four characteristics usually shared by Stanley Cup champions and where this year’s Penguins stack up in those areas.

There is quite a bit of hockey mythology surrounding the hot goaltender, the otherwise mortal netminder who magically finds a run of good form in the spring and carries it all the way through to a Stanley Cup parade in June.

Well, know what’s better than a hot goaltender?

A good goaltender.

Seven of the last eight teams to win the Stanley Cup have finished the regular season in the top 10 in the league in even-strength save percentage, which is a stat that strips out special teams anomalies and measures everyday effectiveness over the grind of an 82-game schedule.

Last year’s Washington Capitals were the only exception to the rule, ranking 14th in the regular season, but it’s not entirely accurate to say Braden Holtby caught lightning in a bottle during the playoffs to pull a championship out of his hat.

He has a career save percentage of .918. He had a down year at .909 in the regular season, but the .922 he managed in the postseason was more a return to his career average than an inexplicable hot streak.

When the Penguins won back-to-back championships in 2016-17, they got great playoff goaltending from Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury (and don’t forget Jeff Zatkoff). The team’s even-strength save percentage in the postseason was .928, but that was only a shade above their .923 in the regular season over the same span.

In the middle of November, this stat would have been bad news for the Penguins. With Murray stuck in a lengthy slump and Casey DeSmith yet to establish himself as a bona fide NHL player, the Penguins ranked 21st in the league with a .908 even-strength save percentage.

These days, it’s a different story. Since Nov. 19, Murray, DeSmith and Tristan Jarry have combined for the sixth-best even-strength save percentage in the league at .920. Add it all up, and for the season, they rank 10th at .915.

Murray’s resurgence following a month-long absence because of a lower-body injury helped the Penguins climb from the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings into the thick of the Metropolitan Division race.

Still, his even-strength save percentage of .924 is a little off the .933 he put up in his first two seasons in the league from 2015-17.

Given the way things are going in the NHL, Murray can’t be sure his numbers will ever reach those heights again. This season, the league-wide average save percentage has dropped to .908, down from the peak of .915 three years ago.

Murray has a theory why.

“A lot of it is the gear,” Murray said. “A lot of it is the rules they put in place to make our jobs harder. They want more goals, so they’re doing stuff to get that. That’s probably a big part of it.”

To an outsider, the changes to goalie gear don’t sound like a big deal. Over the past two years, all the league did was make pants more form-fitting and shave some padding off of chest protectors.

To a goalie, it’s a major difference.

“We do this every day, so your equipment becomes like an extension of your body,” Murray said. “You can tell when something’s different. Last year with the pants was a really big adjustment. You had to play different shots totally differently than you would beforehand because there’s lots of holes and stuff like that. This year, with the chest protector, the same kind of thing. You’ve got to make adjustments.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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