After being sidelined for the past month, Senators’ starting goalie Matt Murray is hoping for second chance to make a first impression in Ottawa.
Murray and the fan base clearly got off on the wrong foot in 2021. He just signed a four year, $25 million deal to be the Senators’ new starting goalie. Still only 26, and a two-time Stanley Cup winner, Ottawa’s expectations were sky high.
But Murray hasn’t remotely lived up to his contract…not yet, anyway. In 21 starts, Murray has a record of 7-13-1, a save percentage of .882 and a goals against average of 3.80 per game. These stats aren’t just poor, they’re right near the bottom of the entire league.
But Murray wasn’t exactly set up for success.
Heading into the season, half of the Senator roster had been dormant for 10 months due to COVID. The other half was new to the club, trying to decipher team tactics and systems. Then they were given a total of zero exhibition games to figure it all out. The Sens were already destined to be a low-end NHL team this season but those circumstances left them completely unprepared to boot.
So, for the first month, the Sens were a hot mess and Murray has had some weak performances. Totally predictable. He’s certainly had some very good outings too, but when he’s been bad, he’s been really, really bad. Fans have begun to wonder if Murray was truly struggling because the team was bad. Or was the team bad because Murray was struggling? Maybe Pittsburgh was willing to trade him for a reason?
The Jekyll and Hyde routine continued for the first two months until finally, on March 10th, Murray was pumped for 7 goals in a 7-1 loss to Edmonton. Traditionally, coaches will pull their starting goalie out of the game after 5 or 6 goals to save him further embarrassment. That night, D.J. Smith left Murray out there.
“I’ve pulled him a bunch,” said Smith. “I think sometimes you’ve just got to work through it with your teammates. There was no one that was any good tonight and, you know what, that’s part of being a team.”
Murray claimed to have no issue with having to stay out there for the entire flogging. Of course, what else is he going to say?
“That’s not my call,” said Murray, the morning after. “I just try to hang in there in a game like that. It’s a tough game for sure and I just tried to battle all the way through.”
Three days later, Murray was injured in warmup, forcing him to miss the next three weeks. And a funny thing happened during that time. All his replacements started to shine. First, Joey Daccord was great. Then, after Daccord got hurt, Filip Gustavsson was even better. And, finally, Anton Forsberg was very good too. Even the main backup, Marcus Hogberg, who’d also been hurt (and not very good), suddenly looked solid in his one appearance last week. It seriously seemed like every goalie in the system was now outplaying Murray.
When April arrived, things got interesting.
On April 1st, Murray was activated off the injured reserve list. But he didn’t play that night against Montreal, nor did he play in the rematch April 3rd or on April 5th against Winnipeg. On the 6th, with Murray’s substitutions continuing to look stable and dependable, the club fired goalie coach Pierre Groulx, replacing him with Zac Bierk. Groulx now had all the goalies playing well, except for the one his boss had convinced owner Eugene Melnyk to spend $25 million on.
Bierk, D.J. Smith’s former Oshawa General colleague, spent the next week working with Murray, trying to get figure him out and get him back on track. At that point, you could fully retire any thoughts that Murray’s early fortunes in Ottawa could be blamed entirely on the team’s sketchy defensive play. It was clearly much more than that. Even if you factor in some conditioning time, you don’t make your number one goalie a healthy scratch for two weeks unless there’s concern about his game.
Murray still has everything to prove in Ottawa: to his coach; to GM Pierre Dorion who stuck his neck out for him, to a fan base that’s partially soured on him, but mostly to his teammates who need to know he can give them a chance to win most nights.
So, on April 14th against the Winnipeg Jets, Murray began his second act. Before the opening faceoff, you could almost imagine the referee pulling out a Hollywood clapperboard, and yelling like a director after a failed movie scene: “Matt Murray, Take Two!” CLAP!
Murray didn’t draw rave reviews from the critics, but wasn’t panned either. He stopped 32 of 35 shots in a 3-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. His .914 save percentage stands as his 10th best performance and, factoring in the month’s worth of rust, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.
It’s now been almost four years ago that Murray capped off his back to back Stanley Cup wins in Pittsburgh. But, somehow, it feels longer ago than that. Maybe that guy’s still in there somewhere, the guy that helped slay the Senators in the 2017 Eastern Conference Final. If he isn’t, he’ll be hurting the Sens again — this time in a considerably different manner.
By Steve Warne