At the beginning of the season there was no reason to believe the Maple Leafs could lose their top two goalies to injuries along with most of their defence and go on a run like the current one.
One-third of the way into the 2022-23 campaign they are a strong second in the Atlantic Division, at 16-5-6 have the fourth-best record in the NHL, and have points in each of the past dozen games.
On Tuesday they pulled another rabbit out of the hat in a 4-0 victory in Dallas over the Stars. At one stretch of the second period, Toronto had penalty-killers Mark Giordano and Justin Holl in the box and then Mitch Marner broke his stick.
“It was like a five on two essentially,” said Auston Matthews, the star centre. “Not ideal.”
In this case, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren held tight on defence and Matt Murray proved to be bulletproof in the net.
“It was a bit chaotic,” Murray said after the 15th shutout of his career. “It might not have been the prettiest but we got it done.”
In what may have been the best performance by a Toronto goalie in recent years, Murray recorded 44 saves and is now 6-1-2 with a .932 save percentage. The only netminder in the league with a higher save percentage is Linus Ullmark of Boston. (Connor Hellebuyck of Winnipeg is also at .932.)
Murray has already won one more game than he did in 20 starts for Ottawa in 2021-22. Thus far he has been as big a revelation as former Maple Leaf Jack Campbell has been in Edmonton – only in a much better way.
After losing on opening night to the Canadiens in Montreal, Murray suffered an adductor injury and sat out 15 games. In that time, he seemed to find the form he showed early in his career as a Stanley Cup winner in Pittsburgh, even though it had eluded him for the previous few years.
“It is not easy to come back when you have been out with an injury,” the 22-year-old Sandin said late Tuesday. “It is easy to lose that touch of the game. He hasn’t lost anything. I feel like he has been growing the whole time. He has been unbelievable for us.”
Murray will get the evening off when Toronto returns to home ice on Thursday against the Los Angeles Kings. Ilya Samsonov, who has been excellent as the other half of the goalie tandem, will get the nod.
Samsonov, who was sidelined with a knee injury after a very strong start, is 7-2 with a .924 save percentage.
T.J. Brodie, who has not played since he tweaked an oblique muscle against Pittsburgh on Nov. 11, may be able to return to the depleted blueline. The latest casualty was Victor Mete on Tuesday, felled by a lower-body injury. At this point, Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Jordie Benn are all on the long-term injured list.
The team finished the encounter in Dallas with five healthy defencemen. Conor Timmins, who made his Toronto debut, was among them. At some point the well of worthy replacements in the AHL is going to run dry.
There is still a lot of time remaining for the Maple Leafs to revert to the same-old Maple Leafs but with the exception of a quibble here or there their results could not be much better.
They put up a gritty performance on Tuesday. Sandin and centre Zach Aston-Reese each blocked four shots, centres David Kampf and Alexander Kerfoot blocked three each, and Giordano, Holl and Marner two each. Reese also was credited with five hits.
What makes the Maple Leafs position in the standing so amazing is that Marner, who recorded a point for the 20th consecutive game, wasn’t the big story. Marner is just the fourth active player to record a 20-game point streak after Patrick Kane (twice), Sidney Crosby and Paul Stastny.
“I am not a one-man effort out there,” said Marner, who now increases the franchise record with each consecutive game in which he registers a point. “There is a lot of work and help from these guys around. It has been a lot of fun during this streak and we are winning games as well.”
They are 9-0-3 over the past 12 as they head into Thursday.