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Matt Murray goes from AHL starter to Stanley Cup champion

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images via AP, Pool

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Matt Murray peeked at the clock several times throughout the third period of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. He wasn’t looking upward in hopes that time would fly; his mind was still in game mode, and with the Pittsburgh Penguins clinging to a 2-1 lead over the San Jose Sharks, this was no time to get ahead of one’s self.

“After we got that empty-netter they still had a minute left, so I knew they were going to make a push,” said Murray. “I knew we had to stay on our toes there for the last minute and that’s what we did. They only had one or two shots the whole third period. What an effort by everybody. It was unbelievable.”

Murray finished with 18 saves and could finally disengage from game mode once the clock read 0.0 and the Penguins were Stanley Cup champions

“I probably won’t believe this is real until at least, I don’t know, who knows, but I’m just enjoying the moment right now like I was trying to do all playoffs long,” he said. “This is when you really get to enjoy things.” 

***

One night after the Penguins opened the 2015-16 NHL season in Dallas, Murray was between the pipes for their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to begin his second full season as a professional.

Little did Murray did know at that time his season would see a number of twists and turns leading to him eventually being the man in net as the Penguins won their fourth Cup in franchise history.

The AHL bus rides early in the season turned into charter flights in March when Murray was recalled to the NHL. He was brought up in December for four starts, but for this late-season call up, he wouldn’t be going back down.

“I think [this playoff run] goes to show you, you can never predict what's going to happen,” Murray said prior to the start of the Final. “My mindset has been this whole time to stay in the moment, take things as they come, focus on being in the present and taking things one shot at a time. I think that's been working for me. Like I said from day one, I'm just trying to have fun through all this.  It's been an absolute blast so far. I'm going to look to keep that same mindset going forward.”

After dropping his first game back in net, Murray would help the Penguins win his next seven starts before his status on the organization’s depth chart would change.

A concussion felled Marc-Andre Fleury following his start on March 31, opening the door for Murray to take the starter’s reins just two weeks before the playoffs arrived.

Following that seventh straight win, Murray himself suffered a concussion during a game against the Philadelphia Flyers, putting the Penguins in the precarious position of having their No. 1 and No. 2 goalies injured with the first round days away.

Jeff Zatkoff would start the first two games of their series against the New York Rangers before head coach Mike Sullivan turned to Murray for Game 3, one of his many wise decisions this season.

There were nerves during that first playoff start at Madison Square Garden, but Murray overcame them and made 16 stops en route to a 3-1 victory. Nearly two months later, he’s now a Stanley Cup champion.

“As a kid you grow up thinking about this stuff, getting to raise that Cup. It was a lot heavier than I thought it was, to be honest,” said Murray, who tied an NHL rookie record with 15 playoff victories in one season. “What a moment. I’ll never forget this moment for the rest of my life, that’s for sure.” 

***

While the Penguins celebrate another Cup conquest this summer, questions will be asked about the team’s goaltending situation going forward. Will both be back next season? Do you have a changing of the guard and attempt to deal Fleury while crowning Murray your permanent starter?

Fleury still has three more seasons on his contract – and a limited no-trade clause – while Murray is due to be a restricted free agent next summer. With a possible expansion draft on the horizon and NHL teams likely only allowed to protect one goaltender, GM Jim Rutherford will have to make a decision when he starts constructing his 2016-17 roster.

Even as Murray took on the role as the team’s No. 1 from Fleury over two months this spring, the long-time Penguins netminder provided plenty of wisdom and encouragement to his young partner.

“He’s been unbelievable. I don’t know where I would be without Fleury’s mentorship, his advice,” Murray said. “There was a couple of times where I was struggling throughout the playoffs and even during the season and I think that’s normal for a rookie. This is my first time in the league and first time going through this.

“Of course I had some ups and some downs. He was there all the way through to help me through the downs. I’ll remember our friendship forever.”

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Sean Leahy is the associate editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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