📝 by John Peterson | AHL On The Beat
He’s seen all the jokes and confused comments on social media at this point.
“Did I miss something? Isn’t he playing for Toronto?” wrote one fan on the Dallas Stars Facebook page.
“Did this guy win a Stanley Cup with the Penguins or am I imagining things?”
Texas Stars rookie goaltender Matt Murray has been hearing it for years. He gets Instagram follows from young hockey fans in Maple Leafs jerseys, clearly in search of the other player who shares the same name and plays the same position.
But the St. Albert, Alta., four years younger than the Matt Murray who starred for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins before backstopping Pittsburgh to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, is now looking to carve out his own path to the NHL as a part of the Stars organization.
“I think it’s just one of those things that is going to be out there for a while,” said Texas’s Murray. “I’m here to make a name for myself, and I want mine to be about me.”
Murray is off to a 7-4-1 start in 13 appearances this season, including a perfect 4-0-0 in December. His 2.40 goal-against average ranks seventh in the AHL.
After helping UMass-Amherst to a national championship in 2021, Murray returned for a fifth collegiate season in 2021-22 and finished as the winningest goaltender in the program’s history. From there, the undrafted Murray weighed options from several teams before agreeing to join the Dallas Stars organization on an amateur tryout with Texas. The Stars were very much alive in the Central Division playoff picture, but needed some late-season magic to punch their ticket into the postseason.
“We wanted to get something done quickly, especially since it was near the end of the season,” said Murray. “Obviously everything is earned, but I felt this place was going to provide me the best opportunity to succeed.”
Murray stepped into the Texas lineup and stopped 20 of 22 shots in his professional debut on Apr. 13, 2022, at the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park, a 3-2 victory over the eventual Calder Cup champion Chicago Wolves. He would go on to a 5-1-0 record with a 1.68 GAA and a .947 save percentage in his first six pro starts, helping Texas grab the fifth and final playoff spot in the Central, and then turned aside 59 of 62 shots in two low-scoring losses to Rockford in his first professional taste of the postseason.
The sample size was enough to earn Murray a two-year AHL contract last summer, helping to solidify an important position for an organization that saw Jake Oettinger graduate into an NHL starter last season.
“We think he has loads of upside, but he has to do it again. It’s a small sample size,” said Texas Stars general manager Scott White at the start of the season. “He has good habits. Our goalie coaches Jeff Reese and Ryan Daniels like his style, like his technique and like his calmness.”
“He instantly added stability for us to that position at a critical point in the season for us last year,” said Texas head coach Neil Graham. “He grabbed the starter’s net and ran with it. You have to tip your hat to him. It’s not an easy situation for any player to get thrown into the middle of a playoff race and he did an excellent job.”
It didn’t take long for Murray to get the phone call all hockey players dream of. On Oct. 31, with Oettinger nursing an injury, Dallas signed Murray to a one-year NHL contract and called him up to back up Scott Wedgewood on their upcoming road trip.
While he didn’t appear in game action, Murray looks back on the whirlwind opportunity fondly.
“I thought the first [pro contract] was fast, but the second one was even faster,” said Murray. “I think that’s where I’ve always succeeded. When you’re needed, you have to be ready. Always be available.”
The plan all along, however, was for Murray to spend the 2022-23 season in Cedar Park, gaining valuable experience in the AHL. So far, he’s shared the workload with veteran Anton Khudobin, who has enjoyed his own success in a comeback season from hip surgery. The two have formed one of the most formidable goaltending tandems in the league, and Khudobin has also been a great mentor for Murray.
“I’d say both as a mentor and a friend, Anton has been awesome,” said Murray. “He’s a great guy in the room and a great guy off the ice as well. I’ve learned from him how to be a pro and how to handle certain situations. It’s been awesome working with him.”
“They complement each other, push each other on the ice and get along off the ice,” said Graham. “You look at the success Khudobin has had in his career. It’s easy for a guy like Matt to look up to that and take advice and pick his brain on different scenarios. In turn, I think it’s great for Khudobin to see a first-year pro pushing him and challenging him.”
Coming out of the holiday break, the Stars find themselves at the top of the Central Division riding a nine-game point streak; their eight straight wins from Dec. 2 to Dec. 20 were the most in the AHL this season. But this year’s Texas team has already drawn some comparisons to the 2014 squad that captured the Calder Cup. That team enjoyed a franchise record 11-game winning streak late in the season, before embarking on their playoff run.
Murray, who won that title at UMass sharing a net with current Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goaltender Filip Lindberg, knows that a team’s depth is the number-one formula for a championship contender.
“You need production, both in points and in workload, up and down the lineup. We have guys all over the team who are able to get the job done. They are effective every single time they go on the ice and I think that makes our coaches’ [decisions] pretty difficult.”
So the younger Matt Murray continues to make his name his own in the hockey world.
“At the end of the day it’s just one of those things that is out there in the world,” he says. “Deal with it. Embrace it.”
Now he’s one step away from really confusing the masses.