‘This is opportunity’: Ilya Samsonov’s shutout gives hope he can hold the fort

Ilya Samsonov stopped 18 shots for his first shutout of the season and Auston Matthews potted two goals as the Toronto Maple Leafs blanked the Nashville Predators 4-0.

TORONTO — After wiping the sweat off his brow with the Hockey Night in Canada towel he’d been gifted for his shutout performance, Ilya Samsonov began his post-game scrum with a dose of his trademark levity.

“Long time, no see you guys,” the winning goaltender said, flashing a grin.

Yes, after 15 days without game action and minimal practice time, the Samsonov smile is back.

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The Toronto Maple Leafs No. 1 goaltender of the moment admitted to first-period nerves as he was eased into a crease that had previously been seized by rookie Joseph Woll, now sidelined weeks (months?) with a high-ankle sprain.

But the patchwork blueline and attentive forwards skating in front of Samsonov controlled play and committed to a sturdy defensive effort in front of their goaltender, delivering a rather comfortable 4-0 win on home ice.

And although he wasn’t tested with many Grade-A looks, Samsonov was rock solid, submitting an 18-save blank sheet.

“I mean, if you could draw it up as a perfect game for him, that’d probably be it. Doesn’t let anything in. The guys played well in front of him,” coach Sheldon Keefe said.

“With Woll’s injury and such, there’s pressure and attention on that position right now. And for Sammy to come in and have a night like that is great for him and something for him to build on, for sure.”

With a bounce in his step, Samsonov cracked a joke about David Kämpf’s unlikely highlight-reel game-winner and was quick to credit his teammates for blocking 15 shots and stealing 15 pucks.

“As tidy a game as we’ve played,” Keefe declared. “A team game like that takes care of everybody.”

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William Nylander (two primary assists) pointed to the home side’s ability to make smarter decisions with the puck and an aggressive forecheck that limited the Preds’ possession time as difference-makers in the team’s first multi-goal victory in nine games: “That’s what we expect of ourselves.”

Added Morgan Rielly: “I think there was a calmness about our group, so that’s always a good sign.”

The Leafs exercised patience in what was a rather low-event contest, which suited the coaching staff just fine and alleviated stress on Samsonov, who has been slow to rebound from the illness running through the Leafs’ dressing room this week.

“It’s a little bit hard, yeah?” Samsonov said. “For three days, sitting everybody-know-where.”

Be it illness or inconsistency, Samsonov’s ability and availability have not reached the levels they were at in 2022-23, his best season and first as a Leaf.

Now, with only veteran call-up Martin Jones in his rear-view, Samsonov has a golden chance to locate his rhythm and improve his numbers in what is yet another critical contract year for the 26-year-old and his young family.

Too sick to back up Thursday in Ottawa, Samsonov was watching a monitor inside the visiting dressing room when he saw tandem mate Woll go down in excruciating pain.

“I get some shock a little bit,” Samsonov said. “It’s not too fun to see your partner get some injury. I remember how I’ve been in this situation in the last year, too — not great.”

The two goaltenders are both supportive friends and quiet competitors.

“We’re playing in the best league in the world. And you need to understand, sometimes your partner plays better than you, and you need to get some work every day — harder and harder. And this is where we see character. And this is opportunity, you know?”

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Samsonov — and the layers of protection in front of him — deserve full marks for making good on Saturday’s opportunity. The next one is right around the corner, as the Leafs now jet to New York City for a back-to-back against the Islanders (Monday) and Rangers (Tuesday).

If Samsonov can shed the nerves, if Toronto’s depleted D can keep limiting quality looks, they’ll be fine.

“Really solid,” Auston Matthews said of Samsonov’s game.

“He looked really just calm and poised in the net. I thought we did a really good job. I think probably one of our most consistent games all year with just forechecking, hounding their D, and being able to keep pucks alive in the O-zone. And when he had to come up with some big saves and stops, he did. So, it was really good to see.”

After two weeks off, is Samsonov ready for a sharp increase in workload? Is he ready to take this net and run?

“Yeah, for sure,” Samsonov said. “Like, if I’m not ready, I’m not here.”

Fox’s Fast Five

• After choosing to sign with Nashville instead of reupping in Toronto as a free agent, Ryan O’Reilly heard a few boos Saturday in his return to Scotiabank Arena…

O’Reilly was an excellent Leaf in his brief time in this city. He earned his right to explore the market. Also: the ticket-buying public has the right to vocalize its opinion on his decision.

• Kämpf tied a career-high with five shots on goal and went bar-down on a beautiful game-winner.

“He’s unbelievable,” Samsonov said. “He’s pushing Auston Matthews right now, y’know? Just you wait.”

• The Maple Leafs fathers’ trip is underway, set for back-to-back fun in New York City. Even Keefe and GM Brad Treliving’s dads are along for the ride.

“It’s a wonderful tradition that’s come about in the NHL the last number of years,” said Keefe.

The coach’s own appreciation for the sacrifices of hockey dads has grown now that his sons are busy with minor hockey.

“If it’s not your first phone call after a game, it’s not far behind that,” he said. “It’s your first contact after a game. It’s your first contact when you’re going through something difficult.”

• Max Domi unwittingly added to the Shohei Ohtani madness Friday with this tweet:

“I was so pumped, honestly. I’m just a Jays fan, Toronto sports fan in general. I tweeted it out because I was like, OK, it looks like it’s happening,” Domi smiled.

“A few hours later, I looked at my phone, and all my friends and family are texting me like: ‘What do you know?’ When did I become the MLB insider, y’know? I have no idea what’s going on. I don’t know the guy at all. I’m just a Jays fan who was really hopeful.”

We all were, Max. We all were.

• More of this from the Arizona lads, please:

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