DALLAS — The Toronto Maple Leafs were bending hard.
Down to five defencemen and already asking their depth blueliners to punch above their weight class, against the NHL’s highest-scoring team no less, it was no wonder that some overworked D-men committed some mental errors.
Late in the second period, a gassed Mark Giordano flipped a puck over the glass. Twenty-two seconds later, an overused Justin Holl closed his hand on the puck, gifting the deadly Dallas Stars 98 seconds of 5-on-3 with the Leafs’ two primary PK defenders in the box, time enough to lick their chops and score their way back into the game.
Then a Jason Robertson shot shattered blocker Mitch Marner’s stick, essentially creating a 5-on-2 situation.
Two words ran through Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe’s mind: Hold on.
Undermanned and under siege — Dallas zipping around seam passes, slamming one-timers and gathering rebounds — the greatest qualities of these new defence-first Maple Leafs rose to the fore.
Resilience and goaltending.
“A bit chaotic, I would say,” goaltender Matt Murray said of the PK sequence gone viral. “We were sacrificing the body, blocking shots, getting in lanes. Might not have been the prettiest, but we got it done.”
Thanks to what Auston Matthews dubbed “the turning point” of a 4-0 Toronto victory that extended the club’s point streak to a dozen games, the Maple Leafs went a ridiculous seven-for-seven on the penalty kill, racked up 27 blocked shots, and snuffed out red-hot Robertson’s personal point streak at 18 games.
They bent but never broke.
None of which would’ve been possible without the play of Murray, whose 44-save shutout earned him the team’s player-of-the-game belt and bumped his record to 6-0-2 since returning from his adductor injury.
According to MoneyPuck.com, Murray’s shutout performance Tuesday was the best of any goaltender since the recording of modern statistics: 5.979 goals saved above expected.
Dallas burned a red blotch around Murray’s crease in the shot-tracking heat map but couldn’t light a red lamp.
“Whew. I don’t know if there’s words for that. That was special,” Matthews smiled, when asked about Murray’s work. “Some absolutely incredible saves … just special.”
“Exceptional,” Marner added. “He made some massive saves, especially on that kill. Throughout the whole game, just workin’ his bag off, makin’ back-door saves. It was fun to watch.”
Keefe needed one word to sum up his oft-doubted goalie’s night: “Perfect.”
Murray put on a show, but he had help.
Toronto’s game-breaking centremen, Matthews and John Tavares, scored on a pair of the scant chances the visitors were afforded in a first period dominated territorially by the rugged Stars.
With the primary assist on the Tavares winner, Marner extended his point streak to 20 games, becoming just the fourth active player (Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and Paul Stastny) to own a run that long. But his PK work trumped anything he did at the fun end of the rink.
“I don’t think ‘cheating’ and ‘Marner’ go in the same sentence,” Stars coach Peter DeBoer said. “He’s as honest a player as there is. He blocks shots, kills penalties. Defensively, he’s really good.”
And young defencemen Rasmus Sandin (23:26, with a goal) and Timothy Liljegren (25:57) arguably played the best — or, at least, the most exhausting — games of their lives, with defenceman Victor Mete leaving in the first period with a lower-body injury.
“Those two guys had an incredible game here tonight. Those two young guys took on a lot and were really, really good,” Keefe said.
“I think you learn a lot about their character. The team needs them to step up in a big way. They’ve done exactly that.”
Ditto Murray, whose resurgence has helped stabilize a roster that is thin on secondary scoring and has been ravaged by injuries to its blue line. (Mete is not expected to play the rest of the week.)
“He’s battling really hard for us. We’re trying to do the same for him,” said Sandin, thinking about the month Murray missed rehabbing.
“Unbelievable. It’s not easy when you’ve been gone. When you’ve been gone for a bit, it’s easy to lose that touch for the game. But he hasn’t lost anything. He’s been growing the whole time.
“He’s a class ’tender.”
Fox’s Fast 5
• Flash back to the 2018 Dallas draft, Kyle Dubas’s first as general manager.
Dubas traded down in Round 1, giving the St. Louis Blues pick 25 (Dominik Bokk) in exchange for picks 29 (Rasmus Sandin) and 76 (Semyon Der-Arguchintsev).
The latter two players were in Toronto’s lineup Tuesday. Bokk has yet to reach the NHL. He bounced from the Berlin Polar Bears to the Frankfurt Lions over this past off-season.
Dubas’s smile to camera as he made that trade four years ago has an air of clairvoyance:
• Jason and Nick Robertson’s mom, Mercedes, was in attendance. Per tradition in these faceoffs between her two sons, she sported the home team’s sweater (in this case, the Stars’ new Reverse Retro edition) and the road team’s ballcap.
• Did you know? Matthews has more primary assists this season (12) than Marner (11), who ranks fourth league-wide in secondary assists (11). Leon Draisaitl leads the league with 21 primary helpers.
• Holl got penalized for throwing the puck out of the D-zone. Keefe was less than pleased. A story in two clips:
• The Maple Leafs arrived in Dallas early to watch the Cowboys crush the Colts at AT&T Stadium Sunday night.
“Just an absolute stomp-down the Cowboys put on. That was fun. Both sides of the ball,” Matthews said. “Most of us had never been to that stadium before. It’s quite the spectacle.”
A couple years back, Jake Muzzin arranged a team trip to Buffalo to take in a Bills game, and last season the Leafs caught the Raiders in Las Vegas.
“We’re just checkin’ them off the list,” said Holl, smiling, a massive Vikings fan. “It’s fun for the European guys because they don’t get to see football games as often, and we don’t either because we’re so busy during the season. It’s fun to get out there with the boys, make a couple side bets.”