Coaches will go to extreme measures to protect their last line of defence -- their goaltender.
A goalie can give up a softie, but if it originated from a turnover at centre ice, a coach will tell reporters, “we can’t turn over the puck there.”
Only when frustration boils over to a point where he can’t take it any more does a coach turn on his goalie in a public forum.
For head coach D.J. Smith and the Ottawa Senators, that moment was Wednesday night (Thursday morning in the east) after Matt Murray gave up four goals on 27 shots as the Senators lost their ninth game in the past 10. Two empty-netters made a very even game seem lopsided, 6-3. The shots were even, 29 apiece.
Smith wasn’t even asked about his goaltending. He went off anyway. Last straw time.
“We deserved better, a point or two,” Smith said. “The difference tonight was probably their goaltending.”
He was just getting started. When the team’s colour analyst, Gord Wilson, asked Smith about getting back to to work today, to “work on the details,” Smith shot back: “I didn’t mind our details. I just think we’ve got to get someone to take the net and start to win us some games when we give that effort. We need someone to get in there and hold us right now.
“We’re a young team that needs someone to steal one for us, probably,” Smith said.
If that outburst was cathartic for the coach, it also expressed the sentiment of the fan base in Ottawa.
A two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Penguins, Murray has been a colossal bust since joining the Senators in the fall of 2020 via trade from Pittsburgh. The pandemic delayed the start of the 2020-21 season until January.
Murray was awful to start the season, the Senators quickly fell out of contention in the temporary North Division, and the organization was so concerned about getting Murray right again, they fired their goaltending coach Pierre Groulx in mid-season, replacing him with Zac Bierk.
Murray got hurt, and then was placed into a kind of personal goalie-training camp -- his time off extended so he could work on the fundamentals of his game. It seemed to help. Murray rebounded to finish the season strong, although the games were meaningless with Ottawa
so far from a playoff spot. Murray won three of his last four starts, two of them by shutout.
In training camp this fall, Murray was talked up as though the problems were over.
But the Murray-isms continued. He got sick with a non-COVID-19 virus that was running through the team during the pre-season. He came back but was still probably not at 100 per cent. Then Murray was injured yet again, this time after lunging forward for a puck only to bang his head on Chris Kreider’s knee.
When he came back from that, Murray tested positive for COVID-19, one of 10 Senators players stricken. Cleared to return to the team, Murray was on the ice for the first practice, last Saturday, but barely took the net, with Filip Gustavsson and Anton Forsberg getting most of the work.
When the Senators returned to action after a week off to recover from COVID, it was Gustavsson, Ottawa’s most reliable goalie this year, who stared down 39 Colorado shots in a wild 7-5 loss in Denver.
Losing can never be pinned on one player, or one goalie. Murray hasn’t played enough to get the blame most nights, but isn’t that the point?
He was supposed to grab the net and hold it months ago, but has never been able to. General manager Pierre Dorion bet heavily on Murray, handing him a four-year, $25-million contract at the time he was acquired. And in the 13-plus months Murray has been here, he has never gotten into the kind of rhythm that builds faith.
This year’s Murray line is a nightmare: 0-5 record (tied for 69th in the league), a 3.27 goals-against (43rd) and .890 save percentage (tied 43rd). If Murray was a backup or a third-stringer, that would be one thing.
In fact, he is the supposed starter relegated to third-string by his play.
That Murray is the third highest-paid player on the roster is simply untenable.
Good luck moving the $6.25 million owed to Murray for the next two seasons.
The only reputation Murray is building here is the knack for letting in at least one bad goal every game. Two or three of the first four Sharks goals were questionable, but the second goal, by Tomas Hertl, simply had to be stopped, a wrister from the faceoff dot,
beating Murray short side. The Nick Bonino goal, to tie the game 3-3, leaked under Murray’s arm. And he didn’t move on the winner by Timo Meier from far out. He may have been screened.
Brady Tkachuk, the new Senators captain, was notably kinder than the coach concerning the goaltending.
“Whatever goalie is in net, we have the utmost confidence and we’ll do anything to support them,” Tkachuk said, trotting out the party line. “We’ve just got to limit the chances as much as we can.”
There’s always excuses. Murray hasn’t played much. He has had lousy health, bad luck, injuries.
But none of this helps to stabilize a young team that is prone to defensive gaffes.
Here we are again. The Senators are 4-12-1, exactly where they were after 17 games last season.
They are dead last in the NHL, 32nd overall with nine points (yes, they have three games in hand on Arizona, with 10 points). They are dead last in goals-against per game at 3.53.
There are bright lights. Drake Batherson has blossomed into a front-line NHL winger, although his COVID-departure has been extended through this week.
Other young players are growing as NHLers. Tim Stützle played centre in San Jose for the first time in his NHL career and Smith thought he was “really good” at breaking out the puck and using his speed. Though Stützle finished -2 with no shots on goal, he has earned the chance to play centre again and the Senators are terribly thin down the middle with Shane Pinto and Colin White out long term. Maybe they can loosen the leash on Stützle a bit, let him take more faceoffs and learn his defensive responsibilities. Winger Nick Paul went out of his way to help the 19-year-old Stützle in those areas.
When the pucks keep going in on Ottawa’s net, though, a lot of the shine goes off the program.
Moral victories only go so far. The Senators need a few real ones.