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Moment of truth draws near for Penguins’ Matt Murray

Updated 4 hours ago

CHICAGO — The time is drawing near for Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray to show whether he has his game back in order.

Murray took part in a full team practice Tuesday for the first time since being sidelined with a lower-body injury Thanksgiving morning.

He said he still has to consult with medical personnel before declaring himself ready for game action.

“But the progression is there,” Murray said.

Murray didn’t rule himself out for Wednesday night’s game with the Chicago Blackhawks. Either way, with the Penguins playing back-to-back home games this weekend, it seems clear his return is days, not weeks, away.

“Matt’s obviously an important part of this team. We’d like to get him involved as soon as we can,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We know when he’s at his best, he’s our No. 1 goalie. We’re encouraged he’s as close as he is.”

When the Penguins announced last month Murray would be out longer term, it came out of nowhere. Skeptics wondered if the team was simply giving Murray cover for a run of poor play.

To hear the 24-year-old goaltender explain the details Tuesday, though, the situation sounded a whole lot less mysterious than that.

“It wasn’t a surprise,” Murray said. “I was playing with a little bit of discomfort, but nothing serious enough to come out. Little tweaks here and there, and it just got bad enough where I made the decision with the doctors to let it rest for a little bit and try to get back to square one.”

Murray is 4-5-1 with an .877 save percentage this season. He’s 0-4-1 in his last five decisions.

He declined to use his injury as a way to explain away his struggles, but he did say his improved health should help him in his efforts to get back on track.

“I’m not going to use it as an excuse now,” Murray said. “Yeah, it was sore, but nothing to come out of play with. I was playing on it for a few weeks, and it was fine and I just tweaked it the one day there. It didn’t really hinder many different parts of my game, either. It’s a pretty specific injury. I think just giving it time to heal was the biggest thing.”

While Murray has been out, Casey DeSmith has more than adequately filled in, going 5-1-1 with a .926 save percentage since Thanksgiving. He’s coming off perhaps his finest performance of the season, a clutch 25-save showing in a 2-1 shootout victory over the New York Islanders on Tuesday night.

DeSmith has looked like a competent NHL goalie all season, but until a few weeks ago, he was still leaking in the occasional shaky goal. As those hiccups have diminished, DeSmith is staking his claim for a greater share of playing time when Murray is fully healthy.

This could be a significant development for Murray, who has played his best hockey in a Penguins uniform when he had a strong goaltending partner — Marc-Andre Fleury — to push him.

“I don’t think that’s something that’s just isolated to Matt’s case,” Sullivan said. “I think it’s an overall part of the culture of hockey or sports, for that matter. We’re all at our best when there’s competition.”

With health concerns receding and a strong push coming from DeSmith, Murray has positive momentum on his side for the first time in a while. All that’s left is to show he can use that tailwind to help him stop more pucks.

“All I can do is just compete in practices and games, do my best in the weight room to get stronger, do every little thing I can to be prepared so when my name is called, I’m ready to go,” Murray said.

Follow the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.

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

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