TORONTO – Matt Murray may have the Stanley Cup rings and the longer contract and the heftier paycheques and those deep ties to the Soo.
But what Murray no longer has is starting goaltender status for the Toronto Maple Leafs, try as they did to set him up for success.
Injuries mounted and relationships turned sour leading to uneasy endings in Pittsburgh and Ottawa, two hockey cities that eventually opted for goalies younger and eager.
And so, on a weird, concerning and not-altogether-forthright evening at Scotiabank Arena — with the Senators, who are paying Murray $1.6 million to not play for them, in town — Toronto got a very real taste of what it’s like to lose faith in Murray’s ability to be The Man at this stage in his career.
Not only was Murray — last seen getting pulled 10 days ago after giving up four goals on eight shots at home to the Florida Panthers — Friday’s announced starter, but it wasn’t until after he led the Leafs out for warmup that he pulled chute, threw on a ballcap, and gave the net back to a suddenly heavily worked Ilya Samsonov.
“Put Sammy in a terrible spot. Just a terrible, terrible spot,” a measured Sheldon Keefe said, following Toronto’s ugly an uninspired 6-2 loss. “And then we didn’t take care of him.”
According to Keefe, an undisclosed injury that is “not new tonight but new” flared up, and Murray was unable to play.
Keefe said the ailment is not related to the adductor injuryil Murray suffered at an October morning skate prior to his first intended start against his former squad.
Samsonov was thrust into action last-minute, the players only aware of the switch when Keefe read out the starting lineup card in the dressing room. This after Keefe said Friday morning the team had been “pushing it a little bit with the workload for Samsonov,” giving him five straight starts.
So hurt was Murray that, although he sat on the bench, he would’ve been unable to take the crease in event Samsonov got injured. An emergency backup would’ve gotten the nod.
But Samsonov is a battler who has fast endeared himself to the room. He stood in for 34 shots, 35 scoring chances, and way too many odd-man rushes from the Sens’ skilled top six barreling his way.
“He’s been our guy,” Morgan Rielly stated. “He’s been playing great for us. So, as a group, we need to do a better job in front of him. It’s not on him in any way. It’s on the group.”
While it’s true that, as Keefe says, the Maple Leafs “always get the best version of Ottawa,” Toronto’s skaters only decided to submit 20 minutes of effort over a 60-minute runtime.
“They played harder than we did,” Keefe summed. “Bottom line is, you can’t have a goalie that’s been giving us absolutely everything, comes in a tough spot and have a performance like that in front of him in the second and third period. Can’t have that.”
The loss had nothing to do with Samsonov’s performance or Auston Matthews’ knee injury. It had everything to do with one team wanting it more than the other.
“You can look at effort to a certain extent,” Reilly said. “You could look at execution, turnovers. There’s lots of things that we didn’t do well tonight… We lost to them not just on the score sheet.”
Added Joey Anderson: “We’re missing that little competitive edge. I think they were heavier than us.”
And William Nylander: “For sure, we took our foot off the gas. That’s unacceptable.”
Good on the Senators, who were full marks on their win and joined the Arizona Coyotes as the only teams to hang a touchdown on the Leafs this season.
“These are games that you circle on the calendar,” said Brady Tkachuk, who scored twice.
The fear for Leafs Nation is that Toronto, too, one day circles this game — as the one where the ambitious and expensive plan to rebuild Matt Murray started crumbling.
Because unless Murray can somehow summon health and consistency, trust and availability within the next 30 games, Ilya Samsonov is their guy.
Fox’s Fast 5
• The Maple Leafs lead the NHL in man-games lost due to injury this season (358), followed by the Capitals (352), Canadiens (346), Flyers (332), and Blue Jackets (320).
The fortunate Rangers (29), Stars (65), Predators (69), and Flames (74) are the only teams with fewer than 100 man-games lost.
• T.J. Brodie was originally given two weeks to recover from his rib injury. It’ll be at least three.
Brodie will practice Saturday and has not been ruled out to return before the Leafs’ bye week, which starts Thursday. They miss him.
“No matter what the schedule says, if he’s 100 per cent and feeling good and ready, I don’t imagine you’d hold him back,” Keefe says. “But if he’s anything less than 100, he wouldn’t be in.”
• Morgan Rielly has played 35 games, taken 66 shots, and is still searching for his first goal under his new eight-year, $60-million contract.
Keefe says he hasn’t spoken to his offensive defenceman about the weight of the doughnut and that you wouldn’t know it’s bothering Rielly by his demeanour.
“Doesn’t give me that sense in terms of how he’s walking around the facility or his mood or the energy that he’s bringing to the games. I think it’s natural that you want one to fall,” Keefe says.
“He’s been shooting the puck more frequently. That’s more what I look for — just ensure that he still has confidence to shoot the puck and not turning down opportunities to score. And I’ve seen an uptick in that sense. If he continues with that, it’s just a matter of time before it falls.”
• Pontus Holmberg’s opportunity to seize a second-line centre role in Matthews’ absence lasted all of two periods. He put the Senators on the power-play twice and was unable to tilt the ice in any meaningful way.
With the Leafs trailing 4-2, Keefe dropped Holmberg and promoted veteran Alexander Kerfoot to 2C in the third period.
What did Keefe think of Holmberg’s play?
“Six minutes of penalties is too much.”
• Fashion folly: The Maple Leafs are wearing their black alternate sweaters more often this season than those sweet Reserve Retros with the shoulder yoke.
These beauties aren’t getting nearly enough run.