Lots missing from vanishing Maple Leafs as Senators kick butt on Bay St.
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From dawn to dusk, the Maple Leafs were engaged in a strange act of disappearance.
First it was Auston Matthews, who was absent from Friday morning’s skating with a knee strain that will sideline him for three weeks. Then goaltender Matt Murray, who led them for the game against Ottawa, sat on the bench for O Canada with an apparent injury.
Facing Ilya Samsonov early and often, the Senators were all over early leaf miscues and exited Scotiabank Arena in 6-2 wins, Samsonov’s first regular loss at Bay St. this season. Coach Sheldon Keefe remarked before the game that “it seems like we always get the best version of Ottawa” in the Battle of Ontario, and he was right.
The visitors fought their goals with more determination, although the loose leaf game helped. Though Matthews is injured or suspended and is suspended 31-16-2 on Friday, he’s proud, but the Leafs could certainly have used some of his 41 career points against the Sens, including 23 goals.
For Murray, it’s the second time he’s been removed before a game against his previous team, a groin injury at morning skate on Oct. 15, a game Samsonov won. If it had been an illness that flared up, Murray probably wouldn’t have stayed on the bench like Friday, but coach Keefe only addressed the sudden change of stoppers afterwards.
Keefe had insisted Samsonov needed a break after the schedule packed, despite having a brilliant 14-0-1 at home. Ottawa won in front of fans for the first time in more than four years at SBA, reversing a 23-point difference in divisional standings.
Samsonov was beaten at Ottawa’s first look during 4-on-4 action after Michael Bunting and Brady Tkachuk were penalized after a scrum in the opening shift. Forward Tim Stuzle and defender Thomas Chabot worked their way up to open the ice and Chabot’s eighth goal.
The Matthews’ machinations with new lines meant that John Tavares found himself halfway between Mitch Marner and Bunting, while Pontus Holmberg moved up with William Nylander and Calle Jarnkrok.
“We’ll miss (Matthews) but we’ll all respond very well,” Bunting said in the morning.
“On the power play, we want to give our team momentum, even if we don’t score. There are still a lot of exceptional players on that powerplay so I think we’ll be fine.
“Johnny plays really good hockey and has been doing it for a long time but when I play with him I have to open my mind, I know he likes to go into the corners and to the net and play a strong game. I know Mitchy and will complement him.”
But Bunting’s penalty, then a double minor for Holmberg for high imprisonment, disrupted plans.
It was Toronto’s fourth line that made it 1-1, a shot by Joey Anderson off Alex DeBrincat’s stick that hit Anton Forsberg in the top corner.
David Kampf’s usually dependable line turned the puck after a breakout in the first minute of the second period, which Tkachuk eventually tipped past Samsonov. The new lead group finally clicked on the power play, Nylander tapped in a Tavares rebound. Marner’s 40th assist gave him seven seasons with as many, with only Darryl Sittler achieving more over nine years, while Marner equaled Borje Salming.
But Holmberg picked up his third minor of the night to equal his season-high 30 games in which Derick Brassard set a perfect deflection in the blue color that Timothy Liljegren accidentally knocked down. The line of battle was hit again by the puck late in the frame, this time Drake Batherson with great optics on goal. Tkachuk pinned the top corner on a third period screen and Claude Giroux closed it.
Murray was hoping to get back on the horse after being drawn against Florida on Jan. 17 as the Leafs rebounded to win. Before that hiccup, his record of 11-5-2 was a win more than his best of two seasons with the Sens. In 2021-22 he was injured, winning just five of 20 games and being demoted once. He signed a multi-year contract with the Leafs, where he had ties to Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas.
The Leafs are now 2-1 in five home games, with Washington here Sunday afternoon making Tavares’ 1,000. NHL game, it will be their final pre-NHL All-Star Break game against Boston on Wednesday.
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