Matt Murray’s season has been quite a roller coaster ride, to say the least. He looked good out of the gate, backstopping a fired-up Ottawa Senators team to a win in their first game of the 2020-21 season and the first game in nearly a calendar year. He then made 40 saves in a tight loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second game. After an overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets in their third game, the season fell off the rails for a bit.
Through a few tough games and injuries, Murray worked his way back into the net and has put forth a strong showing for the Senators recently, including two shutouts and save percentages of .914 (SV%) or higher in starts during April. With another injury on the books, however, it’s time for the Senators to shut down Murray for the season.
It’s difficult to tell a professional athlete to call it quits on a season, and it’s likely more difficult to make the decision because Murray has been playing so well. With fewer than 10 games left of this shortened campaign, that was always going to be tough on the goaltenders; let Murray heal the injury or injuries that have been nagging him so that the Senators can have a healthy and stable goaltending presence to start the 2021-22 season.
Murray shouldered much of the blame early on for the Senators’ struggles during losing streaks and tough stretches. Admittedly, though he may have been a factor, he wasn’t the key or only reason. It’s tough to jump on a guy who joined a new team that lacked defensively stability early on and was asked to clean up and cover for consistent defensive lapses. There was some difficulty with rebound control that didn’t help these situations, but it’s clear that even before this recent stretch of success, he was gaining confidence in himself and the team’s ability to play in their own zone.
There were wins in February and March where Murray was a key factor. On Feb. 4, he made 36 saves to help the Senators to a tight 3-2 win against the Montréal Canadiens. Similarly, on Feb. 21, he made 30 saves and posted a .938 goals against average to help the Senators beat the Canadiens in overtime. Four days later, he earned a .967 GAA against the Calgary Flames.
Since returning on April 14, Murray has helped the Senators look like the best team of the non-playoff teams and perhaps even the Canadiens, who are still fighting to secure a playoff spot in the Scotia North Division. The confidence is back, but this can’t cloud the judgment of management, the coaching staff, and Murray himself regarding any return this season.
Future Goals and Goaltenders
Understandably, Senators fans might want to ice the best team possible for the remaining games and end the season with a strong showing to build hope for next season. This lineup includes Murray in net. But with him signed for another three years, eliminating the need to have him prove himself for another contract, and having battled through a tough season with injuries, there’s no need for him to play the final games and risk further injury.
His strong play in April actually makes this move easier. If he’s shut down now, fans should be riding high about Murray’s play of late and have more reason to be positive about the starting goaltending position to start next season. If he comes back and suffers another injury or plays poorly while trying to play through an injury, Senators fans will be worried about the goaltending position heading into next season. Nobody wants to have that discussion all summer long.
The sample stretches of Murray’s play between injuries this season are small, but they offer enough of a glimpse of the range and battle he has. All goalies will go through tough stretches, but the fact that Senators fans have seen him get caught in a bad stretch early in a season, come back from injury, and play like a reliable starting goaltender when the team is on a roll, has to earn some confidence points with the fans.
Further, with the remaining games, it’s worth seeing what the organization has going forward for goaltending depth. Marcus Högberg has had a similarly difficult season, facing injuries and tough stretches. Anton Forsberg was signed as a depth piece when Murray, Högberg, and Joey Daccord went down and is now facing an injury of his own.
Filip Gustavsson has looked strong, helping the team to two wins in three games he’s started this season. He deserves another game or two down the stretch. With Murray out, the Senators can see how Högberg and Gustavsson might fit into the next couple of seasons with the organization or who might, at least, have the upper hand heading into camp for 2021-22.
If we focus on just this season, Murray’s numbers alone aren’t strong, but they don’t tell the full story. He has battled with this team as they’ve developed and gained an identity. He’s picked them up when they needed a save or two as the season wore on against teams of a more similar caliber than we might have thought early in the season. The team has also supported him with some offense when he needed some extra insurance. Now is not the time to let him try to come back into battle with the team for respect from the rest of the division. That’s been earned already, so let’s let Murray heal and come back ready to pick up where he left off for next season.
Sports and music writer, covering the Ottawa Senators for The Hockey Writers. Lecturer at King’s University College. Loves a good day at the outdoor rink.