Maple Leafs get both sides of goaltending coin in chaotic comeback stunner 

William Nylander scored a pair of goals, including the game-winner, as the Toronto Maple Leafs battled back from a two-goal deficit to defeat the Florida Panthers 5-4 in overtime.

TORONTO — It was a pick-your-poison kind of night for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

If you’d sat in the stands of Scotiabank Arena as the final seconds of the club’s Tuesday-night tilt against the Florida Panthers expired, trying to think back on what you’d just witnessed, trying to diagnose how exactly the Maple Leafs managed to walk out of here with a win, you’d have plenty to sort through. 

A worrying start. A rollercoaster power play that struck twice, but also came up empty five times, allowed a short-handed goal and elicited boos from the home crowd. Sixty minutes filled, generally, with chaos that neither team managed all that well.

And, of course, the goaltending.

Among the hurricane of penalty minutes, highlight-reel chances, and late-game dramatics that Tuesday night’s meeting offered, it was the Maple Leafs’ goaltending that stood out most among the pile. And much like the rest of the night, that category offered a little bit of everything, too.

For one half of Toronto’s tandem, it was one to forget, Matt Murray giving up a goal to Carter Verhaeghe two minutes into the opening period — the Panthers scoring on their second shot of the game, before the Maple Leafs had logged a single chance — and allowing three more regrettable pucks by him before Sheldon Keefe was forced to cut his losses and pull the former champion from the game.

All told, Murray finished the night with 21 minutes of action and four goals-against on just eight shots, leaving his club in a 4-2 hole when he was eventually lifted and granted an escape early in the second period.

“I just have to be better,” Murray said of his performance post-game, after his club had managed to claw its way back. “That’s the bottom line. You know, if I come up with a couple of those, obviously it’s a much different game. So, I just need to be better.”

The 28-year-old can be excused on at least one of the four, as Florida’s second tally — a short-handed marker to regain the lead 10 minutes after Toronto had tied it — came off an abysmal giveaway by Toronto’s top power-play unit, allowing the opposition an easy path to add to Murray’s misery. Goals 1, 3 and 4, though, were harder to stomach.

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Even so, in Keefe’s view, it was just as much about what was happening in front of Murray as it was the netminder’s own early floundering.

“For me, I’m more pulling the goaltender for our team,” the coach said of his decision. “We just needed to change something. We can’t give up four goals on eight shots, no matter how you shake it out. That was really it. 

“You look at the actual goals, I didn’t think any of the goals were too egregious or anything like that. There’s traffic involved in each of those goals. But clearly we needed to change something.”

So, change something they did. No. 30 out, No. 35 in. And then, everything shifted.

“He was great,” Mitch Marner said of Ilya Samsonov’s performance, the second half of Toronto’s tandem coming in cold but managing to answer every question asked of him by the Panthers’ forwards. “Obviously a couple massive saves, a big breakaway save in the third too. He just came in and calmed our team down. It was great to see him go in there and just kind of take over that game for us.”

“He was just composed,” added Auston Matthews, who fed off that momentum and helped author the Maple Leafs’ comeback. “We did a little bit better of a job in front of him, I think, but obviously he made some incredible saves tonight, too.”

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Heroic as his performance might’ve been, for Samsonov, himself, it was just par for the course. Part of the job.

“It’s just a game,” he said after finishing the night with 11 saves on 11 shots. “Both goalies need to be ready for everything.”

The man whose net he rescued had a more generous view of the situation.

“I thought Sammy did an unbelievable job coming in cold like that, made a ton of huge saves for us,” Murray said of his partner. “It gave the team a huge spark.”

Given everything else that happened on this Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena, in what was a circus of a game that had both coaches fairly perplexed after the final whistle, maybe it’s a burn-the-tapes type of affair. But maybe there’s cause for concern, too, in how things were trending before Matthews and William Nylander pulled their club back from the depths with a pair of tying goals and an overtime winner.

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Look back through Murray’s slate of games in 2022-23, and Tuesday’s affair marks the seventh time in 19 appearances that the netminder’s allowed four goals or more. Since December, the veteran’s oscillated between world-beating performances and worrying showings like this one. Every time, he’s managed to answer with a quality win his next time out.

This time, though, as his workload’s ramped up, he stumbled twice in a row for the first time, allowing four against an elite Boston Bruins side on Saturday, before his four against these middling Panthers.

What that means for the latter half of the regular season, and the all-important stretch that will come after, isn’t yet clear. What it does make clear is that there are still question marks hovering above the Maple Leafs net, with the stakes as high as ever.

Luckily for the blue and white, on this night that was only half the story, Samsonov showed the other side of his club’s goaltending coin. And the team in front of him showed the type of resilience they’ll need to draw upon if they hope to change their playoff fortunes in 2023.

“For me and for team, a really important win,” Samsonov said of the 5-4 victory. “This game, everybody sees — 4-2, two goals, three goals, it doesn’t matter for us. We played really strong today. A huge win, just for the mental. For the team.”

Ask Keefe, and there’s little question of who sparked the storm that eventually lifted his squad and delivered that character win.

“Clearly we needed to change something. And then Sammy went in,” Keefe said from the bowels of Scotiabank Arena as the stands emptied, reflecting on the comeback. “Made some big saves, got the crowd into it. He gave the guys some life, and a reason to keep pushing.”

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