Douglas Murray is slow.
There's no kind way to put it. At 6'3", 245, Murray's stature is closer to that of an apartment building than the prototypical NHL defenseman. The latter is far more mobile than the former.
Then again, skating laps around an apartment building may be preferable to trying to skate around Murray. Even for the fleet-footed New York Islanders.
Excepting Pittsburgh's shock-and-awe win in Game 1, the Islanders took the attack to the Penguins in Games 2 and 3, using their lightning-quick forecheck to disrupt Pittsburgh's breakouts and spread out their preferred defensive postures.
While the team's forwards were little help in getting back to stifle New York's offensive rushes, the blue line has been made to look very little like the group that allowed 9 goals in an 11-game stretch during the regular season and more like the one that surrendered 30 goals in six games a postseason ago.
Defenders like Mark Eaton and Matt Niskanen, smart if not exactly speedy, have been caught chasing several times through the last few games. Simon Despres and Deryk Engelland have been put out to lunch. Even Kris Letang's all-world wheels haven't enabled him to recover from instances of bad positioning and close the gap on New York's forecheck.
New York's attack was every bit as relentless in Sunday's 5-4 overtime loss as in their 4-3 win in Game 2. No one on Pittsburgh's blue line looked good in Game 2. But in Game 3, Murray (and for that matter, Paul Martin) was as-advertised: good on the penalty kill, physical along the boards. Solid.
With the Islanders skating circles around what is supposed to be one of hockey's faster teams, how is it that Murray is the only one containing their attack?
Positioning is a good place to start.
Murray doesn't take chances. He can't afford to. Not with the puck, and not with his positioning. Call him slow if you like; smart, if you're paying attention. Perhaps because he can't afford the risk of forcing plays, Murray seems to let the game come to him. On defense, that means forcing New York's forwards to either beat him along the boards, alone, or beat both Penguins defenders and any backchecking Pens forwards with a rush down the middle.
Dump-and-chase is hardly a better option. Have you seen opposing forwards try to muscle Murray off the puck in a scrum along the boards, or fish the puck out from under his feet? When Murray is working down low, the boards are his jungle, the puck his Kurtz. No one is taking it from him.
Short those options, the Islanders have just two ways to get around Pittsburgh's big defender: tire him out on a cycle or blow past him down the slot.
The Islanders have players capable of making the Hail Mary dash through the slot, as Kyle Okposo showed with a shorthanded breakaway goal on Sunday. However, Murray tends not to get beat on such low-percentage plays, instead forcing the Islanders to try to beat him with a rush down the wings.
The mismatch of speed seems to favor the Isles, but so far Murray has proven tough to beat.
The Islanders, for all their mobility, have admitted that his size and positioning have made his number one to avoid on the forecheck.
In a story from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Islanders winger Brad Boyes spoke about the advantages of not having to face physical Pens defender Brooks Orpik. In doing so, he also let slip that Murray has been Pittsburgh's best defensive weapon.
"It's definitely been to our advantage to try to [drive down the wings towards the Pittsburgh net]," Boyes said, noting that only defenseman Doug Murray has proven an imposing obstacle for the Penguins.
It's not as though the book isn't out on how to contain the Islanders attack. In Game 1, Pittsburgh played a much more responsible brand of hockey than the one they've displayed through the last two contests. That wasn't quantified in the 5-0 final so much as in the total shots.
Pittsburgh limited the Islanders to 26 shots and no goals in Game 1. In two games since, the Isles have recorded 78 shots on goal, have attempted 145 total and have put 8 behind Marc-Andre Fleury in two games since he began his postseason redemption tour with a shutout.
New York has adjusted to the pace of playoff hockey, but that disparity between Game 1 and Games 2 and 3 is not just the result of an improved opponent. That many shots against speaks to deficiencies in Pittsburgh's defense.
Murray is one Penguins defender who hasn't stopped playing responsible, smart defense. It makes no difference whether that's because he can't afford to stop playing carefully, or is simply experienced enough to continue doing so as a matter of course. His play should be instructive to the rest of the team.
Pittsburgh acquired veterans like Murray to set the example when things started to get away from the team. While things have begun to unravel a bit, Murray hasn't wavered in doing his part.
Starting with Game 4, it's on the rest of the team to follow suit.