NHL goaltending is an extremely stressful job. Your stellar play can steal games, and you can become an icon for your team, living as a legend in fans’ memories. Or, your poor performance can draw the ire of an entire fan base who makes you a scapegoat (justly or unjustly) for their team’s shortcomings. Without a doubt, it requires nerves of steel, and, above all, persistence. Every goalie — every player for that matter — experiences ups and downs in his career. What defines “The Greats” is their ability to bounce back in the face of adversity.
Three elite goalies, each at different points in their careers, struggled significantly during the 2019-20 season. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Murray, a 26-year-old, two-time Stanley Cup champion, suffered through injuries and a potential usurper in Tristan Jarry. Thirty-five-year-old Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks also faced numerous injuries and now contends with what could be the tail end of his career. Sergei Bobrovsky failed to meet the expectations placed on him when the Florida Panthers signed him to a seven-year, $70 million contract last summer.
Before the NHL announced its return-to-play format, these netminders may have had to write off the regular season and begin preparing for next year. But, with training camps set to commence on July 10, Murray, Crawford, and Bobrovsky will have the opportunity to salvage this season in the playoff’s qualifying round. While each goalie sits at different points in their career, all three are seeking to prove themselves in one way or another.
Murray started his first NHL playoff game at 22 years old after making only 13 regular-season appearances. In the absence of injured Marc-Andre Fleury, Murray led the Penguins to their first of back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016. After the second championship in 2017, the Penguins opted to expose Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft. Murray, then 24, became the number one goalie for the juggernaut Penguins. But, his three seasons at the helm have not gone as smoothly as his first two seasons in the league.
Between the 2017-18 season and 2019-2020 season, Murray accrued a 76-41-14 record with a .909 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.82 goals against average (GAA). His 76 wins rank 13th in the NHL during that span, while his SV% is the 24th lowest and his GAA the 9th highest. For comparison, in his first two NHL seasons, he posted a 41-12-5 record, .925 SV%, and 2.32 GAA. To be fair, Murray has been marred by injuries, but, regardless, his numbers since taking over for Fleury have disappointed.
Then, this past season, Jarry burst onto the scene, threatening to steal Murray’s starting role, much like Murray had done to Fleury. In fact, Jarry’s stellar play has created a swirl of trade rumors surrounding Murray. Most likely, the Penguins will be forced to part with one of them this offseason. But, for now, the Penguins are focused on the qualifying round. For Murray, this could be the redemptive opportunity he needs.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan told The Athletic that Murray will likely get the nod against the Montreal Canadiens when play resumes. Murray will have the chance to solidify himself as the Penguins’ number one netminder, though it will not be easy facing Carey Price. Nevertheless, Murray remains undaunted, telling NHL.com he is confident and focused.
I can only control what’s in my control. That’s putting my best effort on the ice every time. The rest will take care of itself. I know if I compete and work really hard, the rest will fall into place. So that’s where my focus is at.Wes Cosby – NHL.com
In a way, for Murray, the pause could be a blessing in disguise. He has had time to heal and corral a troubling season. The momentum Jarry generated has also been halted, which could serve in Murray’s favor. Of course, Murray wants the Penguins to win, and he would not wish for Jarry’s failure. But, hockey players are competitive, and you can bet Murray wants to be in net when the Penguins face off against the Canadiens. His future in Pittsburgh could depend on it.
Murray has the talent and experience to lead the Penguins through the qualifying round. In the face of adversity — from within and without — he has an opportunity to shape his future. A disastrous performance could put him on the trading block. Another successful postseason run would prove him the elite goaltender he has shown flashes of in his young career.
Crawford finds himself at a different crossroads than Murray. At 35, Crawford is a 13-year NHL veteran with two Stanley Cups. He backstopped the Blackhawks through their dynastic era, but now he has suffered through poor individual play alongside a struggling team. Plagued by injuries, his inconsistency has raised questions concerning his future in Chicago and perhaps the NHL.
But, like Murray, the qualifying round presents an opportunity for Crawford to recapture his former magic. There are many reasons to believe he could. In his final 10 games before the pause, he played well, posting a 6-4 record with a .930 SV%. He defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning (a team already in the first round of the playoffs) and the Edmonton Oilers, who the Blackhawks will face in the qualifying round. The Blackhawks and Crawford looked in better form before the halt.
Crawford’s playoff pedigree also prepares him to rebound during the qualifiers. Between 2006 and 2017, he played 87 playoff games and won 48, each ranking third behind Henrik Lundqvist (125, 61) and Fleury (115, 62). His .919 SV% and 2.29 GAA each rank fifth among goaltenders with at least 50 games played. And, just for fun, he had two assists. Add to this resume two Stanley Cups, and you have one of the best, most consistent playoff goaltenders in the past 14 years. A healthy, rested Crawford could display his playoff expertise.
The Blackhawks’ are no cakewalk for the Oilers. Superstar Patrick Kane posted 84 points in 70 games. Captain Jonathan Toews had a disappointing season but still notched 60 points. Rookie Dominik Kubalik surprised with 30 goals in 68 games. True, the Blackhawks struggled overall, but the team’s youth could help match the speed and talent of the Oilers. Kane and Toews have not tasted playoff hockey in three years, their hunger and leadership could resurrect the Blackhawks against an inconsistent, top-heavy Oilers, with Crawford shutting the door in net.
Of course, Crawford is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He has plenty to offer the Blackhawks, though, and much to prove in the final seasons of his career. Injuries have prevented him from establishing a rhythm, but the pause can serve as a reset, positioning him to thrive when play resumes. It is not guaranteed, but Crawford has the potential to help the Blackhawks break into the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
“The Curious Case of Sergei Bobrovsky” could be the title of a documentary chronicling his 10-season career. He has captured two Vezina Trophies and won 40-plus games once and 30-plus games four times. His 278 wins since 2010 ranks sixth among all goalies. Often considered an elite goaltender, he has also been pegged inconsistent and somewhat unreliable, particularly in the playoffs. Bobrovsky’s first season with the Florida Panthers only reinforced that characterization.
Despite Bobrovsky’s abysmal performance, he has the skill, determination, and the experience to shrug off the regular season. Last season, he led the Columbus Blue Jackets to a first-round sweep of the Lightning. He went 4-0 and posted a .932 SV% and a 2.03 GAA. Before 2019, he had a 5-14 record in the postseason. Though the Blue Jackets lost in the second round to the Boston Bruins, Bobrovsky had quelled criticisms of his playoff abilities, allowing him to sign a massive ticket with the Panthers last summer.
Truthfully, if Bobrovsky had not performed so well last postseason, there would be little room for optimism heading into the qualifying round, but that sweep against the Lightning provides a glimmer of hope. Also, starting with a new team in a new system in a new city creates challenges, which partly explains his struggles. Bobrovsky acknowledged as much: “It wasn’t easy season for me. It was a new team, new coach [Joel Quenneville], new [surroundings]. Everything is new,” he told NHL.com in April. Of course, that excuse only goes so far, and general manager Dave Tallon stated Bobrovsky needs to play better — the Panthers’ success depends on it.
He has something to prove, and that’s a good thing, so I expect him to be at the top of his game, and when he’s at the top of his game, we have a chance to win. We’re counting on him. We’re relying on him and we expect big things from him.Tracey Myers – NHL.com
Perhaps Bobrovsky has reset during the pause, clearing from his mind the disappointment of the regular season. With (almost) a full season under his belt in the Sunshine State, he should feel more comfortable when the Panthers take on the New York Islanders. The Islanders will not be an easy opponent, and goaltender Semyon Varlamov serves as a formidable counter to Bobrovsky. Do not forget though that Bobrovsky bested Andrei Vasilevsky in the first round last year. Without a doubt, he has the talent to propel the Panthers into the playoffs.
Bobrovsky finds himself somewhere in between Murray and Crawford, both in age and career development. He’s five years older the Murray and four years younger the Crawford. Unlike Murray, he does not have to prove himself to fend off a trade (at least not yet); unlike Crawford, he does not have to demonstrate that his age has caught up with him (again, not yet). Instead, Bobrovsky has to show that the $10 million the Panthers pay him is a worthwhile investment. That might always be an overpayment, but a strong performance in the qualifying round could silence critics. Bobrovsky has found himself in this situation before, and he has the tools to pull through.
Defining the Next Phases of Their Careers
Murray, Crawford, and Bobrovsky must play well in the qualifying round, not only for their teams to advance, but also to shape their careers in an upward trajectory. Each face challenges but have the skill and experience to salvage a forgettable 2019-20 regular season. Can they push through the adversity? The answer will define how they are remembered as players and franchise leaders.