The Ottawa Senators knew this was going to be a long, challenging venture to the warm south.
They couldn’t have expected it would be the trip to "L," night after night. Four games in, Ottawa has nothing but losses – to Tampa Bay, Florida, cellar-dwelling Arizona and then in heartbreaking fashion, a 2-1, last-second loss to the Vegas Knights Sunday, where the Sens were the better team on the night.
On this trip, Ottawa has been outscored 18-8. Dating back to a home-ice loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 26, the Sens have now dropped five straight and seven of their past eight.
Oh, and they get to finish off their five-game road trip with a visit to St. Louis Tuesday to face a tough Blues team, before returning for a five-game homestand.
Matt Murray out again
Apologies for the recurring Murray angle. It’s the storyline that won’t quit.
The Senators' anointed No. 1 goaltender is out yet again with an injury from what seemed an innocuous collision with his own defenceman, Nikita Zaitsev, during Saturday’s wild 8-5 loss to the Coyotes. Murray finished the game but was unavailable on Sunday, and the Senators had to call in Filip Gustavsson from AHL Belleville to back up Anton Forsberg against the Knights.
"Forsberg was outstanding," said Senators head coach D.J. Smith after Forsberg stopped 40 of 42 Las Vegas shots. It is a familiar post-game quote after Forsberg games. Meanwhile, Murray suffers another setback.
Since arriving here via trade from Pittsburgh in October of 2020 and subsequently signing a four-year, $25-million contract, Murray has been frequently unavailable for work due to an endless string of misfortune. He has suffered upper- and lower-body injuries, illness (either cold or flu), been on the COVID-19 protocols list (twice) as well as having time away from the Senators, either in Ottawa or Belleville to refine his game.
The overall result is that Ottawa’s $6.25-million man (only Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot earn more) has either not been available or dressed as backup for fewer than half of the Senators' games since he came here to stabilize the goaltending situation.
Of the 111 games the Senators have played since the start of the condensed 2020-21 season, Murray has appeared in 47 of them. His record is 15-25-3. This season, Murray has been in 20 of Ottawa’s 55 games, with a 5-12-2 mark, 3.05 goals-against and .907 save percentage.
Forsberg and young Gustavsson have actually combined to appear in more games than Murray. Forsberg, scooped off waivers last March, and Gustavsson have appeared in 34 and 22 games respectively during the Murray era.
When healthy, Murray has actually played pretty well in this calendar year, despite not having much to show for it. In February, Murray went 1-4-0 but with a 2.11 GAA and .943 save percentage. His two March starts were rough – 13 goals allowed against Tampa Bay and Arizona combined. His team didn’t help him.
At this point, the man’s health has to be the over-riding concern. Considering that Murray had a concussion history in Pittsburgh, with at least two reported concussions during his five years with the Penguins, the fact that he is getting these neck/head injuries has to be a worry.
Murray suffered a neck injury in a collision with the New York Rangers’ Chris Kreider in late October, putting him on the IR for a week, then injured the neck again when Oskar Sundqvist of the Blues fell on Murray in an innocent-looking play as Sundqvist scored a goal at the CTC on Feb. 15. Murray did not finish that game. Now, Murray is on IR again, meaning he will be out at least a week.
Even if he does return to full health later this month, Senators management has to be re-thinking what had been a pencilled-in plan to trade Forsberg at the deadline, considering Gustavsson steps into a one-way contract next season.
The thinking was that a Murray-Gus combo could get it done. Who has faith in that concept now?
Not only has Murray been unavailable, Forsberg has been outstanding when called upon – which is often. With a record of 11-10-2, Forsberg has twice as many wins as Murray and better underlying numbers – 2.77 GAA and .920 save percentage.
Forsberg seems to be one of those goalies who plays better the more shots he faces. And he faces a ton. Six times this season, Forsberg, 29, has faced 40- plus shots and he has won FOUR of those games. Twice he beat Carolina (including a brilliant 47-save performance in a 3-2 win) and he also has victories against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Minnesota Wild in 40-plus shot flurries.
A lot of media, including team broadcasters, are wondering if Forsberg is a Craig Anderson 2.0. That is, a late-blooming goaltender who arrived in Ottawa to become a steady, rock-solid performer for years to come.
This may not be how Sens management drew it up. Murray was supposed to be THE guy. Sometimes, though -- and especially where goaltending is concerned -- stuff happens; you fall into things.
The Senators appear to have stumbled into a reliable, low-maintenance NHL goalie in Forsberg, plucked off waivers from the Winnipeg Jets on March 17, 2021. Never mind that Forsberg moved around a lot before he settled into steady work in Ottawa. Columbus, Chicago, Carolina, Edmonton and Winnipeg have all had him in their system. And every one of those teams could use Forsberg today.
Ottawa would be crazy to move Forsberg at the deadline for a draft pick.
The Senators need Forsberg to give their young players some stability in the crease during what has been a difficult stretch, with a lot of defensive breakdowns. There is plenty of time to sort out the goaltending situation for next season, and time to get Forsberg signed to a reasonable deal.
He has earned it, by being the Senators best goalie for the past 12 months.