It appears that Ilya Samsonov has the inside track on starting Game 1 of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first-round playoff series next month. He has been better and more available than Matt Murray, who has missed extended time on two occasions this season because of injuries.
But then Murray makes 48 saves, plus six more in a nine-round shootout, against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, reminding people why he was a two-time Stanley Cup champion at 23 years old.
“One thing I know about Matt Murray: He’s unflappable and extremely confident in who he is,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe told reporters Saturday morning. “Once you’ve won two Stanley Cups, I don’t think you care about much else that’s going on.”
Samsonov is slated to start Tuesday against the New York Islanders, but Keefe said last week that Samsonov is “not quite at 100 per cent.” If Samsonov gets hurt or struggles down the stretch, can the Maple Leafs trust Murray to keep them afloat?
Murray has allowed four goals in each of his past six starts — four of which have come since he returned from an ankle injury. He is the first Maple Leafs goaltender to endure such a streak since Ed Belfour in 2005-06. Although Murray has been sharp on shots from outside the slot over his four most recent starts, stopping 72 of 75, he has had a hard time making saves in tight. Ten of the 16 goals that Murray has given up have come from the inner slot.
Murray’s struggles in the slot are not a product of poor defence in front of him. The Maple Leafs surrendered a season-high 52 shots to the Senators, but most were from the outside. Murray faced 15 slot shots, stopping 12 of them. He was 5-for-7 from the inner slot.
This season, Murray has seen an average of 12.7 shots from the slot per 60 minutes, which ranks 23rd among the top 64 goaltenders in the NHL (min. 850 minutes). For context, former Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen has faced the fewest slot shots per 60 with the Carolina Hurricanes (10.3). Anaheim’s John Gibson has faced the most (18.0).
Murray’s .827 slot save percentage is tied for 27th in that group. Samsonov, meanwhile, has faced 13.2 slot shots per 60 (tied for 30th) and stopped 85.7 per cent of them — third best behind Boston’s Linus Ullmark and Minnesota’s Filip Gustavsson.
Keefe lately has gone out of his way to defend Murray when asked to critique the goaltender’s performance. After Murray went 25-for-29 in a loss to the Buffalo Sabres last week, Keefe said this about Murray’s play since his return to the lineup: “I think he’s been great. The numbers look terrible.”
It is hard to marry those two statements. Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas chose not to address the goaltending position at the trade deadline, trusting Samsonov and Murray to help the Maple Leafs get past the first round for the first time in 19 years.
Because Samsonov and Murray are not workhorses, it is more than possible that they both see game action in the playoffs, depending on how far the Maple Leafs go.
Team brass might have a hard time sitting a player with two Stanley Cup rings and a career .921 save percentage in the playoffs. But unless Murray rediscovers his 2017 form in the next few weeks, the Maple Leafs would be wise to roll with Samsonov.
All stats via Sportlogiq