‘We bent and didn’t break’: Murray shows his mettle in Maple Leafs return

John Tavares netted his 400th career goal, and Matt Murray made 35 saves in his return from injury to lift the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2.

PITTSBURGH — Back when Matt Murray was the king of this Pittsburgh rink, the toast of this Cup-winning black-and-yellow town, he lived by three words out on the ice: ‘Love over fear.’

“Just loving the game, loving getting out there, loving the hard moments,” his former goalie coach, Mike Buckley, explained of their mantra. “Loving the pressure, as opposed to fearing it.”

On a Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, back under the PPG Paints Arena Lights, a cloud of doubt hovering over his net as he made just his second start in Toronto Maple Leafs colours, Murray got a taste of that pressure he so loves once again.

“It means a lot,” the former Penguin said on Tuesday night, after registering his first win as a Maple Leaf in his first start back in Pittsburgh. “I wanted to get off to a good start coming back from injury. I think you could tell the guys were really playing hard in front of me tonight, a ton of blocked shots.

“I thought the guys played their hearts out.”

It started quietly. Through the first 20 minutes of the tilt, the Penguins offered up little to test Murray, while on the other end of the sheet, John Tavares and Mitch Marner made easy work of building a two-goal lead for the blue-and-white. The next period started much the same, Michael Bunting potting Toronto’s third goal of the night before the masses in the stands even had the chance to return to their seats.

And then it turned.

Before that opening minute of the second period was up, the Penguins managed to draw some blood of their own, a point shot from Jason Zucker deflecting off Rickard Rakell in front, beating Murray. Two-and-a-half minutes later, the goaltender was staring down a sight none in his position wants to see: Sidney Crosby collecting the puck with speed at the blue line, beating a defender, and loading up one of those signature backhanders.

[brightcove videoID=6315641827112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Just like that, the Maple Leafs’ lead had been cut to a single shot, the Pens climbing back to 3-2. And the hosts kept their foot on the gas from there, feeding off the outburst, peppering Murray, rallying to deliver the home crowd a tying goal.

It never came.

“They’re an extremely dangerous team. They’re always going to have that push, and tonight it came early in the second — it was a shooting gallery for them,” Murray said of that middle-game stretch that saw the shots begin to tilt in Pittsburgh’s favour. “Not that we were really doing anything wrong, they just turned it on and kept us on our heels for a while. But we responded the right way.

“We bent and didn’t break.”

While No. 30 got plenty of help from the blue line in front of him — Jordie Benn in particular earned a fair few name-drops from Murray post-game for his defensive efforts — the two-time champ proved he was up to the task in his return to the cage. It wasn’t perfect, not on a night that saw Pittsburgh pot two quick ones and threaten to derail a strong Maple Leafs start, but in the end Murray showed the Maple Leafs faithful he could weather the storm, that he could come up with the saves needed, when they mattered most.

“He made a couple unbelievable stops to keep us in this game,” said Marner of his netminder once the win was in the books.

Rewind the tape and they’re all there. A second-period Penguins power-play that saw the club’s superstar-studded top unit teeing off — to no avail. Soon after, a promising Pens sequence that finished with Crosby trying to hammer one past Murray at the side of the net — unsuccessfully. Then it was Crosby from the slot, then Brock McGinn with space at the netfront, then Evgeni Malkin wiring one on another Pens power-play in the third.

Murray kept the door shut, refusing to relinquish Toronto’s lead, until the squad in front of him piled on a few more goals of their own.

“The bench is so fired up when he’s kickin’,” Benn said of Murray’s performance. “He looked so calm, cool and collected in there. It’s good to see, and it gives us confidence to play harder in front of him.”

“There were times that we looked pretty vulnerable, and they’ve got some really good shooters with good shooting lanes,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said post-game, thinking back to that third-period Penguins power play. “It doesn’t look like Matt can see the puck, and he’s able to find it, track it really well, and make the save.

“I thought he was just really solid and calm.”

The same can be said of the group in front of him.

While the Maple Leafs showed their mettle defensively, on the other side of the puck, they looked no less fluid, putting up five goals for only the second time in 2022-23. After shaking up his top six and making the decision to split up leading duo Marner and Auston Matthews, it seems Keefe’s blending has begun to yield fruit.

Reunited on the second line, Marner and Tavares looked dominant for lengthy stretches Tuesday, each tallying a goal, the captain’s ranking as the 400th of his career. Up top, Matthews, Bunting and William Nylander all got on the board, too, Bunting finishing with a pair of goals — both assisted by Matthews — and Nylander sealing the night with an empty-netter.

[brightcove videoID=6315637156112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Mark it as a page turned for Bunting too, who stumbled early this season coming off a career year, but has found his game since being reunited with Matthews.

“Maybe I was just gripping my stick too tight, just maybe getting away from my game and not going to those dirty areas, going to the front of the net,” Bunting had said before the puck dropped Tuesday. “I’ve got to go back to what brought me success last year, and what brings me success as a player.”

The shift in approach netted him as many goals tonight as he had through his previous 16 games.

“I thought it was Bunts’ best game, in terms of how he held onto pucks, how he battled, competed,” Keefe said of the performance. “The goals, of course, were really great. Those are the ones that generally come when he plays how he did tonight.”

As for Bunting’s own assessment, all focus was turned to his goaltender’s big night, what it meant to No. 30, and to this group.

“He was a wall in the net,” Bunting said. “Obviously, this game meant a lot to him. … We want to play strong in front of our goalie, especially a guy that’s coming off an injury and coming back into it. I think he played unbelievable and I thought we helped him out when we could.

“But there’s not much we had to do — he’s a great goalie.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.