Rookie Matt Murray, vet Matt Cullen lead Penguins to solid win

NEW YORK -- Opposite ends of the ice, opposite ends of the circle of life, hockey style.

At one end, 21-year-old Matt Murray calmly faced his first-ever NHL postseason game, at hallowed Madison Square Garden, and almost matter-of-factly led the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-1 victory over the New York Rangers to give his team a 2-1 series lead in this first-round, best-of-seven event.

"The nerves were definitely going at the start of the game," Murray said after his 16-save performance once again put the Penguins in the driver's. "I think that's understandable. It's my first playoff game, at MSG, no less. I was able to control it, though, and that's all I think you can ask for."

And to complete the circle imagery, almost 200 feet away, Matt Cullen, 39, would somehow poke a loose puck through converging Ranger defensemen Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle before sliding a shot under veteran goalie Henrik Lundqvist for the eventual winning goal 4:16 into the third period, breaking a 1-1 tie.

Cullen laughed about how he hasn't had many like that, although it was in fact his 13th postseason goal in his 77nd postseason game, dating back to 1999, and his third playoff game winner.

"I'll take it," he said. "There's no feeling like it."

For Murray, it's only one game. But he admitted it was a bit touch-and-go whether he was going to be cleared medically to play in Game 3 as he tried to recover from getting his bell rung in Game 82 against the Philadelphia Flyers in a meaningless contest at the time that had serious implications when starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury could not return from a concussion for the start of the playoffs.

Murray received medical clearance and was told Monday night he would be the Game 3 starter.

Fleury was nowhere to be seen on Tuesday night after the victory, although his equipment was in the locker room on Tuesday morning. And if you wanted to do a little crystal ball gazing, you wonder if Tuesday's win will mark the first building block in the ascension plan to the Pittsburgh goaltending throne.

You don't have to talk to many people in the hockey world to get the feeling Murray is the real deal. His former coach in the American Hockey League, John Hynes, was unequivocal in talking about Murray's ability to slide in so capably when Fleury went down late in the regular season.

Even as he moved up the depth chart in the minors, at one point setting an AHL shutout record of 304:11, there was never a hint of ego or entitlement.

"He was the same guy every day," Hynes said in an interview. "He never changed."

That's when the coaching staff concluded "this guy's going to be special," added Hynes, who is now the head coach of the New Jersey Devils.

You knew he was talented, Hynes added, "But it was mental makeup and his maturity level and his humility that caught you."

In the first period of his first playoff game, Murray allowed a goal that was overturned on review and then gave up a laser by Rick Nash on a short-handed rush 39 seconds into the second period. And while he was not overly pressured, Murray did come up with key stops through the first two periods to set the stage for Cullen's winner.

Ho hum.

"I think he's very mature beyond his years in the sense that he's very calm back there," Penguins defenseman Ian Cole said. "He's very composed. He's not a guy that lets in a goal like that one and then gets rattled and then goes downhill. I mean, even veteran goalies do that sometimes.

"He battles at everything even at practice. Every puck, he wants zero pucks going in. You've got to really admire his battle level."

If the NHL does expand into Las Vegas, there will be time to debate what would be an enormous decision for the Penguins regarding which goaltender -- Fleury or Murray -- to protect in an expansion draft. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, shall we?

Ask Cullen about staying in the moment and enjoying the days as they come because you don't know how many there are in front of you, just how many have passed.

And so on a night when the man with the gray hairs found a way to put his team ahead to stay, he was pretty impressed with the young man who was not yet five years old when Cullen played his first postseason game.

"You could see the guys rally around him and the confidence that it gives our team, and to see him playing so well so calm so poised back there like he's been there before," Cullen said of Murray.

"I mean it's really impressive a young guy do that," he added. "For us, it was huge tonight."