MONTREAL — Toronto was swarming the Canadiens on the power play, just two seconds remaining in Saturday’s first period, when the Maple Leafs’ Nasem Kadri let a bad-intentioned slapper fly from the top of the faceoff circle.
The puck never made it to Habs goalie Carey Price, defenceman Douglas Murray taking the blast off his right hand as he crouched in the way.
It wasn’t the first time Price’s daylight was blocked out by Murray, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound human eclipse.
“I try to cover as much area as I can,” Murray said with a shrug in the Canadiens’ dressing room following his team’s never-a-dull-moment 4-2 win.
Across from him, Price was expressing his appreciation, lightheartedly critiquing his colossal teammate’s skills as a goalie. At first period’s end, the Leafs storm passed, Price had given Murray a few grateful taps and a word of thanks.
“He is big and physical and he blocks a lot of shots. He makes it tough to play against in your end,” Price said.
And then, with a laugh: “I can’t emphasize how good of a goaltender he is. He always seems to be perfectly square and he’s got really good angles. And he’s got a big set of (male body part).”
Murray had an excellent night’s work in his 12th game for the Canadiens, an increasingly useful $1.5-million free-agent acquisition this past August. The 33-year-old had five blocked shots and three hits with a shot on goal during his 14:24 of duty, 3:49 of that on the penalty kill.
“The PK’s essential,” Murray said of his puck-stopping, net-clearing role with his team down a man.
“With one less guy out there, you can’t defend as close and you have guys crashing the net. Anything you can block before it even gets there saves a lot of trouble.”
You could distil Murray’s game Saturday into a single shift: the Canadiens up 2-0 just past midway through the second period, the man nicknamed Crankshaft bodychecked Kadri into next week, plowed 6-foot-3, 225-pound Colton Orr out of Price’s crease, then muscled Orr off a puck in the corner.
“I try to do that night in and night out, every shift,” Murray said. “Sometimes, it goes better than other times. That’s the way I have to play to be successful.”
Murray would win a race against an ice floe, in a photo-finish. But the best thing about him is this: he knows his limitations and he works within them, playing to his strengths.
Head coach Michel Therrien enjoys what he’s seeing from the native of Bromma, Sweden, who arrived in Montreal with 465 NHL games played in San Jose and Pittsburgh.
“He’s solid, that’s what I like about him,” Therrien said Saturday night. “He’s a really tough guy to play against in the corners and in front of the net, and he’s doing a great job killing penalties.
“He’s a presence, and he’s a good teammate.”
You will seldom see players react to a fight as the Canadiens did last Wednesday in Buffalo after Murray’s scrap with John Scott, the Sabres’ one-dimensional backhoe.
The Habs furiously thumped the boards with their sticks when Murray left the ice bloodied, a deep cut at the corner of his left eye needing about a dozen stitches to close. He took a therapy day at practice in Washington the next day and didn’t play Friday vs. the Capitals, reportedly because his helmet and stitches didn’t get along.
“It wasn’t because of that that I was out. It was another thing,” Murray clarified with a flicker of mischief, “but I don’t reveal injuries.”
It was one to his upper body suffered in training camp that kept Murray sidelined the first 11 games of the season.
“That’s definitely not what I was expecting, getting hurt right at the beginning of camp,” he said. “It’s tough. We have a camp to get in game shape and we play exhibitions to get into game-decision-making shape, to get to the top level.
“It was a big setback for me at the beginning, but I’m starting to feel a lot better now. Hopefully, I’ll keep getting better. As long as the team wins, I’m happy.
“And things have been a lot better for the team as of late. We’ve started climbing pretty good the last couple of weeks.”
There is little mystery to his game, Murray said, “a big portion of it positioning, reading the play and good timing. Even more than timing is confidence, and playing, moving and handling the puck comes from playing more. It’s a balance, and you have to earn that playing time.”
Murray is averaging 12:31 with 31 blocked shots and 31 hits. His minus-5 ranking doesn’t properly reflect what he’s meant to the Canadiens; a much better gauge is that in the 26:22 he’s played on the penalty-kill, his team has not allowed a single goal.
And if Murray can effectively rub out an opponent in a corner, it’s his thunderous open-ice hits that are breathtaking for victim and spectator alike.
He comes by that naturally, maternal grandfather Lars (Lasse) Björn having been a punishing defenceman for the Swedish national squad and club-team Djurgarden through the 1950s and ’60s. The 81-year-old, who was paid a pair of skates to sign his first pro contract, is a two-time world champion, nine-time Swedish champion and 1952 Olympic bronze medallist.
Famously, Björn was asked to lead his national team’s singing of the Swedish anthem in Moscow’s cavernous Lenin Stadium after the country’s stunning 1957 world-championship upset of the Soviets. Stricken by stage-fright, forgetting the words when frozen by the moment, Björn instead led his teammates in a Swedish drinking song.
“Believe it or not, my grandfather has bigger hands than I do,” said Murray, whose paws are the size of small kegs. “I have good genes for being big, but since I was 5 or 6, he thought I didn’t hit enough.
“My parents didn’t really like it very much,” he added, grinning, “but it was ingrained in me at a very early age to be physical. It’s nothing I work on.
“I never really knew if my grandfather’s stories were true from back in the day. But I ran into some older scouts in North America who confirmed he was tough when he played.”
It’s safe to assume that Lasse Björn would have enjoyed his grandson’s shot-blocking, body-splattering performance Saturday as much as the Canadiens and their fans, Murray’s rugged, no-frills effort worthy of a tuneful stein or two.
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