Samsonov answering Maple Leafs’ lingering questions in net as playoffs loom

Shawn McKenzie and Luke Fox discuss how the Toronto Maple Leafs should feel good about themselves in their shootout loss to the Colorado Avalanche, why Ilya Samsonov should be the primary goalie moving forward & Morgan Reilly's noticeably great game.

TORONTO — A month away from the most important week in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ season, the week that’ll see them begin their first-round hunt for redemption, a familiar question lingers.

Game 1, under the lights, the pressure weighing heavy on these Leafs’ shoulders — who’s in net?

After years of running into the post-season with a high-flying offence that papered over defensive issues, goaltending issues, and killer-instinct issues, the 2022-23 Leafs head into the home stretch of the campaign looking much the same. With 80 per cent of the season in the bag, the goaltending question — somehow — remains unanswered.

In one corner, there’s Matt Murray, the two-time champ who was seemingly brought in to claim that role. And in the other, there’s Ilya Samsonov, who showed Wednesday night that he’s the clearest answer the Maple Leafs have at this moment.

“I thought he was great,” Auston Matthews said of Samsonov from the bowels of Scotiabank Arena, after a narrow back-and-forth with the defending champs ended in a 2-1 shootout loss. “He made some great saves for us, kept us in the game. When we gave up breakaways, odd-man rushes, he came up big.

“He did everything he had to do. It’s just one of those games that can go either way.”

You’d be hard-pressed to fault Samsonov for it not going Toronto’s way on this night, especially given the nature of the two shots that beat him.

The first, 14 minutes into the opening frame, was a write-off, a Mikko Rantanen pass that ended up deflecting off of Leafs defender Jake McCabe as the latter attempted to disrupt the shooting lane, the puck changing course unexpectedly and drifting five hole as Samsonov readied himself to stop a one-time attempt at the far post.

The only other came 45 minutes later, when Nathan MacKinnon — he of some of the quickest hands and least predictable attacks in the game — was thrown at Samsonov one-on-one in the shootout.

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MacKinnon did what he so often does, his skills-competition tally the only shootout attempt converted by either squad, and the night was done.

That the Maple Leafs will move on with one point, at least, comes down to Samsonov more than anyone else in blue and white.

On a night that saw these Avs take up residence in Toronto’s zone time and time again, from the opening period to the extra one, a night that saw Samsonov’s team give up five man-advantage opportunities to Colorado’s lethal top unit, a night that saw his Leafs offer little in the way of resistance, finishing with their lowest shot total of any game this season (18), it was Samsonov who kept them in it.

“I just thought he was locked in,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said after the final buzzer had sounded. “I don’t think we gave up a ton in terms of high-quality chances, there was a lot of stuff coming from the points and the perimeter. But anything that we did give up, in the slot or whatever it might’ve been, he was set. He looked really athletic and dynamic, some of the saves he made with his hands. I thought he was excellent.

“In a game in which there wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity for the goalie to really shine, I thought he was still a standout for us.”

The netminder’s finest moment came late in the third, Rantanen drifting to the wall and finding Makar in the slot with acres of space — an echo of the situation that saw Rielly tally in the first. With the game on the line, the Leafs having played with fire all night long, there was Samsonov, flying out to the top of his crease and keeping Makar at bay.

“It’s similar to the way he’s been all year — I think he’s been confident,” Tavares said of No. 35. “You see him being aggressive, challenging shooters. Using his frame and his mobility, his quickness, to take a lot of the net away. He just continued to battle. He’s a real competitor.”

The netminder characterized the night the same way, himself.

“A good battle,” Samsonov said post-game, still wearing a look of irked disappointment on his face at being beaten by MacKinnon’s shootout attempt. “Both teams wanted to win today.”

Trying to do so against elite winners like Nos. 29 and 8, though, is a complicated ask.

“It’s a little bit different than (Connor) McDavid and (Leon) Draisaitl, but again, a ton of speed,” the netminder said of facing MacKinnon and Makar. “You need to be a little bit prepared before these guys enter the zone — you need to get ready for everything. You need to see where the forwards are moving, where the D are moving. These guys are really smart players.”

In the end, it was the defending champs’ smarts — and a decent dose of luck — that won the day. Still, in their goalie’s eyes, the blue and white can still take away something from this one.

“It was a good competition before the playoffs,” Samsonov said. “My teammates played awesome today. A little bit not liking the shootout. … But we have one point.

“Heads up, and keep moving.”

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