On Wednesday night, the San Jose Sharks won the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history. A night later, the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning to win the Eastern Conference Final and advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the fifth time in franchise history.
Come Monday night, however, the conference final wins will be put behind each team as the Sharks and Pens will step on the ice at Consol Energy Center for Game 1 of the STANLEY CUP FINAL (still doesn't feel real, does it?).
In a postseason that has featured goalies Jonathan Quick, Corey Crawford, and Braden Holtby, two young, relatively inexperienced netminders have played pivotal roles in getting their team to the Final.
Martin Jones, 26, and Matt Murray, 22, will be starting their first Stanley Cup Final game and both have had quite an interesting path to get them to where they are now.
In San Jose, we're familiar with Martin Jones' story. A 2014 Stanley Cup winner with the Los Angeles Kings, L.A. dealt him to Boston to acquire Milan Lucic before Boston flipped him back to the west coast just days later when the Sharks offered the Bruins their 2016 first round pick for Jones. Did Doug Wilson trade for Jones in spite of Dean Lombardi and the Kings? Half of me thinks so, but regardless, it was the second of four brilliant off season pick ups by Wilson (Peter DeBoer, Joner, Paul Martin, and Joel Ward).
It was pretty obvious that Jones, who had started just 29 career games in L.A., would be the Sharks starter for the 2015-2016 season and the foreseeable future when the Sharks signed him to a three year, $9 million extension. All throughout the league, NHL executives knew of Jones' potential, but sitting behind Quick and Tuukka Rask wouldn't allow him to demonstrate his skill set on a full-time basis.
Fast forward eleven months after Jones was brought to San Jose. Jones finished the season with a 37-23-4 record with 2.27 GAA and a save percentage of .918. At times he has looked great, like shutting out Stanley Cup favorites Anaheim and Washington back-to-back at the beginning of the season. At other times, it's been clear he's a first year starter, giving up goals shot from the goal line and not protecting his posts as well as he could. Yet here we are, three days away from the Stanley Cup Final, and Jones is about to do something that Arturs Irbe, Antti Niemi, and even Evgeni Nabokov weren't able to do for San Jose: Start a Stanley Cup Final game.
Jones' playoff numbers have proved steady with his regular season production, something has plagued prior Shark goalies. In 18 games this postseason, Jones has a GAA of 2.12 and a save percentage of .919. The most important stat, however, are the 12 wins. The 12 wins needed to reach the Final, the 12 wins that Irbe, Niemi, and Nabokov weren't able to get for the Sharks. Sure, this San Jose team playing in front of him is one of the best offensive teams in the league and has depth through all four lines and three defensive pairings, but Jones has been just as big to this team as any one of his teammates have, and come Monday night, he'll look for win number 13.
On the other side of the rink will be Matt Murray, a goalie who was taken 83rd overall in the 2012 NHL Draft but found his way to Pittsburgh just three and a half years later. Murray, who celebrated his 22nd birthday watching the Sharks win the west, might be this postseason's best surprise story.
Last season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pittsburgh's AHL affiliate, Murray set an AHL record for the longest shutout streak, not allowing a goal for 304:11. On top of that achievement, Murray also had 12 shutouts, setting a new AHL rookie record for most shutouts by a goalie. He'd finish the season by taking home multiple pieces of hardware, winning the Red Garrett Memorial Award (best rookie) and the Baz Bastien Memorial Award (best goalie), as well as being named to the AHL First All-Star Team and Rookie Team. His 2014-2015 season made it apparent that he was ready for the next level, but would his hot play continue against NHLers like it did minor leaguers?
Murray made his NHL debut on December 19 in a 2-1 defeat to the Carolina Hurricanes, where he stopped 24 of 26 shots. At the New Year, Murray would be spent back to the AHL but made his return in late February and would make the final nine starts of the season for the Pens after Marc-Andre Fleury was sidelined with concussion symptoms. In just 13 regular season starts, Murray's numbers were impressive nonetheless: 9-2-1 with a 2.00 GAA and .930 save percentage.
With Fleury still recovering from his concussion, head coach Mike Sullivan started Jeff Zatkoff against the New York Rangers before eventually turning to Murray. So far, it's been a great fit. Murray has been considered the goalie of the future for the Pens, but nobody expected him to make a splash this early in his young career. In 15 games started this postseason, Murray has gone 11-4 with a GAA of 2.21 and a .924 save percentage. A brief hiccup came in Game 4 against the Lightning, when he was pulled for Fleury after allowing four straight goals to start the game. In Game 5, Sullivan opted to start Fleury over Murray. Although Tampa Bay didn't generate many shots on net, they won the game 4-3 in overtime to take a 3-2 series lead. Fleury's line? 15 saves on 19 shots. Not good. In result, Sullivan went back to the rookie for two huge elimination games and the move paid off as the Penguins came back to win the series.
Matt Murray presents a tough challenge for the Sharks; he wasn't playing when Pittsburgh and San Jose met up twice during the regular season. He has a championship caliber team playing in front of him and is riding a hot streak in the net. But then again, can't you flip the script and say the exact same thing about the difficulty Jones will give the Pens? You most certainly can.