OTTAWA – Matt Murray’s head was buried in his hands when the hockey finally finished.
When 48 saves through a breakneck 65 minutes, plus six more in a never-ending shootout, had already been completed.
When Alexander Kerfoot — the 18th shooter in the longest skills competition of Murray’s eight-year career — slipped the long-deferred winner five-hole through Mads Sogaard and sealed a hectic revenge victory for the goalie both teams are paying to play.
“I wasn’t watching. Just listening,” Murray said, following the Toronto Maple Leafs’ wild 5-4 victory at Canadian Tire Centre.
“Marathon of a game. Super exciting game to be a part of. A lot of emotion out there. A lot of energy in the building. Obviously nice to get that extra point, so it was a fun win to be a part of.”
Murray needed this one.
Not as badly as the Maple Leafs — skating sluggish on the second half of a back-to-back — needed him to stand tall in the face of a rested and desperate Ottawa Senators squad.
Yes, Murray surrendered four goals for the sixth consecutive start, including Brady Tkachuk’s Grade-A game-tying strike with 11 ticks left in regulation. And yes, Toronto’s video coaches helped swiftly wiped another third-period Senators goal off the board by catching an offside.
But make no mistake: Murray delivered far and away his best performance since Jan. 11, when he stole two points against the Nashville Predators.
With Toronto under siege early and often, Murray came up big on breakaways, odd-man rushes, and cross-seam plays. Then outlasted his foil to secure the Maple Leafs’ first shootout win of the season.
Surely, in a season derailed by two injuries and spotty with starts and consistency, Saturday’s homecoming was one to bookmark — even if Murray himself did his darnedest to frame it as just another game.
“One thing I know about Matt Murray: He is unflappable and extremely confident in who he is,” said coach Sheldon Keefe, aware of the goalie’s doubters.
“Once you’ve won two Stanley Cups, I don’t think you can care about much else that’s going on.”
The Maple Leafs have been patient with last summer’s big bet in net.
General manager Kyle Dubas repeatedly denied having any interest in exploring the trade market for help in the crease, even as Murray’s ankle recovery lingered for weeks. Even after Murray false-started his first two appearances against these same Sens on game day.
Well, Murray was the patient one on this evening.
The hungry Senators outshot their visitors to the tune of 19-9 in a lopsided first period, yet only a fluky sky-high bloop-single ricochet off Julien Gauthier beat Murray after it lobbed over his head. And Toronto escaped the first 20 minutes with a 1-1 scoreboard.
“They outplayed us in the first for sure, and he kept us in the game,” Calle Järnkrok said.
Added Auston Matthews: “He was a brick wall tonight. He was so solid and came up with some big saves for us, which is massive. Just kept playing. He doesn’t get rattled in there. He’s just on to the next shot and on to the next play.”
So what if Ottawa’s playoff odds have slumped to 0.9 per cent, according to MoneyPuck.com? The Sens played like we’re saying they have a chance.
They threw 52 pucks at Murray and out-attempted the Leafs 93-51 — easily the most pucks directed at Toronto’s net all season.
“I’m sure it’ll do lots for us confidence. It was good he was busy. We’ve been talking about how he hasn’t been busy in terms of the workload. Even in the games he’s played of late here, I think he’s done a good job but hasn’t gotten enough of the perimeter-type shots to really get him engaged in the game and to get a proper workload and inflate his numbers,” said Keefe, with a wink to the CTC’s shot counter.
“Somebody in the building here must’ve liked him. He must’ve been nice to someone, because I think he got about 10 bonus saves out of this one here tonight. But no question, they threw a lot at him. A lot of traffic at the same time. He handled it really well.”
A brief and subdued “Welcome back, Matt Murray” announcement on the Jumbotron — no video, just a photo — was greeted with a mixed reaction, and Murray fielded a few boos when he accidentally on purpose popped his post off its moorings during one of the Sens’ many attacks.
His two years playing for this town are complicated. And while the ending wasn’t pleasant, Murray has declined multiple opportunities to rehash his days in Kanata.
“A lot of emotions” is all he allowed of his return. He says it was nice to see the security guards and reconnect with the Sens staff that took care of him through last winter’s rehabs.
“It’s good to be back,” he said.
Even better, surely, to come back and steal a win on tilted ice.
“It was a really exciting game. Pretty electric atmosphere out there. Both sides had a lot of fans in the crowd, and both sides were real loud. A lot of energy. So, it was a real fun game,” Murray said.
He senses one to build on.
“I’ve felt better each and every game since I’ve been back.”
Fox’s Fast 5
• Smartly, the Maple Leafs are embracing load management like it’s a warm hug from Carlton the Bear.
Ilya Samsonov was given a break from travel to rest some minor ailments and spend time with wife Mariya, who is expecting a baby any day now. Joseph Woll was recalled for backup duty.
Mark Giordano, the NHL’s oldest skater, was granted his first night off all season.
Keefe explains that he spoke with all eight of his D-men this week and explained there will be rest days coming in preparation for the playoffs. Giordano understood.
“Good chance for us to give Gio a break here,” Keefe said. “He’s played a lot of minutes this season, probably more than we anticipated.”
• Calle Järnkrok has risen to his recent assignment as Auston Matthews’ winger.
The Swede set a career high Saturday with his 16th and 17th goals, and both shots were teed up by Matthews. He’s running hot on a four-game point streak (3-3–6).
Keefe noted that with all the line juggling going on this week, Matthews “felt strongly” about continuing to skate with Järnkrok.
• D.J. Smith hard-matched Artem Zub and rookie Jake Sanderson against Matthews’ line, partly because Thomas Chabot has been playing through injury and partly because of the coach’s trust in Sanderson.
“He can play against anyone,” Smith asserts.
Because the physical 20-year-old refuses to cheat for offence and is smart with his stick and positioning, he’s only taken six minutes in penalties through 64 games.
“He doesn’t take lazy penalties,” Smith says.
• Tkachuk delivered some high praise for 22-year-old Sogaard this week: “He’s our goalie of the future, and he’s gonna take us to the Stanley Cup.”
Sogaard missed his captain’s blessing because he deleted social-media apps from his phone once he got called up to the NHL. He only found out Saturday when a reporter relayed the quote.
“That means a lot,” Sogaard said. “I’m glad you told me that.”
• Saturday marked Wayne Simmonds’ first hockey game in 45 days.