TORONTO – Matt Murray had never seen anything like it.
Sheldon Keefe may never attempt it in the regular season.
And Alexander Kerfoot — who prides himself on sliding all over the lineup chart — found himself in a position he’d never played before.
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention.
So, with the Toronto Maple Leafs parading another two defencemen off to the trainer’s table before Wednesday’s exhibition game against the Montreal Canadiens was a period old, the coach looked at his shortened bench and got creative.
Blueliners Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) were felled early in the 3-0 win, joining Jake Muzzin (back), Timohty Liljegren (hernia) and Rasmus Sandin (contract dispute) on Toronto’s swelling list of unavailable D-men. (Benn and Dahlstrom require further examination but are expected to “miss some time,” per Keefe.)
“It sucks to see it happening as frequent as it’s been here. It seems like every day one or two guys are going down,” Keefe says. “Not a good thing.”
Keefe pulled his two most trusted utility men, Kerfoot and Calle Järnkrok, out of the dressing room during the first intermission and made a request.
The coach asked both forwards to play defence, explaining that he didn’t want to tax the remaining healthy bodies he had left back there.
Embrace offence when we have puck. Trust your defensive instincts when we don’t.
Kerfoot was just trying to avoid skating backwards.
“You can’t go two periods with four defencemen. That’s a lot to ask,” Keefe says. Kerfoot and Järnkrok didn’t balk at the unusual assignment. “They’re two selfless players… I thought they did an incredible job.”
The Leafs locked down a wild exhibition victory with this D corps:
Giordano - Mete
Rielly - Järnkrok
Kerfoot - Brodie
And they looked good doing it.
“I mean, the way they stepped in and were making reads and were making breakout passes,” Murray marveled. “They weren't missing a beat. So, pretty impressive on their part.”
“They made it look a bit too easy,” Morgan Rielly quipped. “Made us look bad a little bit.”
“As a coach, I had a little fun tonight, to be honest,” Keefe smiled. “They may not admit it, but they probably had some fun (too).”
Murray, Samsonov yet to crack
Neither Matt Murray nor Ilya Samsonov are willing to feed your doubts.
Yes, it’s very early. Yes, the competition has been as light as the stakes. And yes, the sample size is smaller than Denis Malgin’s sport jacket.
Caveats aside, both ends of general manager Kyle Dubas’ double-down gamble in net have yet to hand the haters any space for criticism.
Not only did Murray mimic Samsonov’s preseason stat line — a perfect 16 saves on 16 shots through 40 minutes played — but he tacked on a secondary assist with Nick Robertson’s opening goal for good measure.
“They’ve answered all the questions that have come their way so far,” Keefe says.
Much like 1B Samsonov before him, 1A Murray wasn’t overly taxed in his exhibition debut against a non-playoff team scattered with AHLers, but he stood steady, did his job, and walked out of Scotiabank Arena with a clean sheet and an injection of confidence.
“I had a blast doing it,” Murray said. “Just a game that was really fun to be a part of.”
Keefe has been impressed by Murray’s structure in the crease, his ability to track the puck, and his focused work ethic since arriving in Toronto well before camp’s opening last week.
“He’s got presence,” Keefe says. “That’s what I’ve noticed from the day he walked into our facility — he’s got presence and confidence about him.”
Auston Matthews echoes the sentiment: “He’s got just a calm presence. He’s not a super-talkative guy, but he just seems very poised and in control. Really calm in the net.”
Whereas Jack Campbell was the happy-go-lucky puppy you want to see jump the fence, Murray is the Great Dane that casually walks around it.
Murray’s even-keel demeanour may not lend itself to juicy quotes, but his under-the-radar approach could translate well in this market. Provided he continues to stop the puck, of course.
To that end, the 28-year-old’s towering 6-foot-5, 203-pound frame will help.
“Big guy. I didn’t know how big he was until I saw him for the first time,” says William Nylander. “I don’t think you often get a chance to play with a goalie who's won two Cups.”
Absolutely, Murray’s two Stanley Cup rings with Pittsburgh weigh heavy in terms of both reputation and expectation.
“Well, I learned a lot from those days, for sure. But I think what they taught me was the importance of taking things one day at a time and controlling what you can control and doing that to the best of your abilities and not worrying about the rest. So, that's where my focus lies,” Murray says.
“The No. 1 thing you need as a goalie is short-term memory. Win or lose, good game or bad game, whatever it may be, start the next day fresh.”
Fox’s Fast 5
• Until the injuries piled up, Giordano was temporarily reunited with his old Flame, T.J. Brodie. Has the mild-mannered Brodie changed since those days in Alberta?
“He’s got a sportscar now that I never expected him to have,” Giordano notes. “The city got to him, I guess.”
• Why didn’t Auston Matthews throw out Tuesday’s first pitch at the Blue Jays game from the rubber, as he had planned?
“The mascot didn’t let me,” he smiled.
(Mitch Marner — who did go up the mound in his first-pitch experience back in 2017 — explains that the real pitchers frown upon ceremonial tossers treading on their fresh dirt before the game.)
• David Kämpf rejoined the group after missing two days of camp for personal reasons: “Everything is good, and I’m here. I’m happy to be back here.”
If only Carolina’s Ondrej Kase was here too.
“He’s my very, very good friend,” Kämpf says. “I was a little bit sad that he left. But this is hockey, right? This is business. Hopefully some day we can play together again.”
• Keefe wondered if the NHL should permit healthy scratches to run down from the press box and sub in during preseason game in event of injury.
“We have a lot of players in suits tonight that would love an opportunity to compete in a game like this,” he said. “And they don’t have that chance.”
• Wonderful to see the 1972 Team Canada squad in attendance and honoured on the 50th anniversary of their Summit Series victory, an idea born by Leafs president Brendan Shanahan.
Would have loved to see the Leafs and Habs wear the throwback national sweaters for the entire game instead of just the national anthem.