‘We may need him’: Maple Leafs’ Radim Zohorna makes big impact in limited debut

Ilya Samsonov made 30 saves en route to his fourth shutout of the season and Radim Zohorna made a strong first impression scoring in his season debut as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Ottawa Senators 3-0.

OTTAWA – Less than 48 hours ago, Radim Zohorna couldn’t find his way into the Toronto Maple Leafs practice facility.

Now? Toronto’s latest, tallest callup can’t find his way off the club’s highlight package.

“He didn’t even know how to get into the building — or get to (the Maple Leafs’) side of the building, I should say. He is new to me and new to all of our staff on this side of the building,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said Friday of a deadline-day acquisition meant for the Marlies.

“I don’t know a lot” about him, Keefe added.

No one on the Maple Leafs — outside of onetime Penguins teammate Zach Aston-Reese — knew much about the 6-foot-6, 220-pound forward, who may have been recruited from Alberta or a scouting trip up the beanstalk.

Sure, “Big Zee” had appeared in 33 NHL contests, but they’d been scattered over three winters in Pittsburgh and Calgary, and those organizations had mostly used the undrafted Czechia native as a farmhand.

“Didn’t know he was that big of a guy,” William Nylander smiles.

“When I first met him, my first impression was this guy is huge,” Michael Bunting chuckles.

Well, the impact Zohorna made Saturday in his sudden Maple Leafs’ debut — a 3-0 victory over the desperate and injury-ravaged Senators in Ottawa — was particularly outsized when you consider how little Keefe used his emergency replacement for an under-the-weather Wayne Simmonds.

“Big guy. Has some skill,” Keefe said. “The timing’s right in terms of him being the guy to come up, because you never know what you might encounter — and we may need him.”

Despite skating a team-low 6:15, Zohorna found a way to lead all Maple Leafs in shots (four) and topped the team in Corsi-for percentage (77.8). He threw a hit, blocked a shot, and scored an assertive insurance goal after straddling the boards into the offensive zone in a play Senators coach D.J. Smith would later dispute was a too-many-men infraction.

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“I was nervous,” Zohorna admitted postgame, after he’d been awarded the Leafs’ heavyweight player-of-the-game award by John Tavares. “First game, first goal, and the belt… it’s such a good feeling.”

Rolling just 11 forwards and getting hemmed in by the home team through 20 minutes, Keefe found it challenging to decide when and where to deploy a player he’d only met for one practice.

In his 10 quick shifts, Zohorna forechecked well and didn’t shy from the blue paint.

“I think he ends up getting 20 per cent of our shots here tonight in very limited ice time,” Keefe said. “Shows that he’s doing good things when he’s out there.”

“He’s nice,” added goalie Ilya Samsonov, following his fourth shutout and first as a dad. (Samsonov dedicated the win to baby Miroslav.)

“He’s like two guys with two sticks. He’s looking big.”

Thing is, when Kyle Dubas traded Calgary for the 26-year-old Zohorna on March 3, the deal was largely intended to give the Marlies a boost for their postseason, and to send the B.C.-born Dryden Hunt, who fell out of favour in Toronto, closer to home.

“He is a guy we liked when he came over (from Czechia) and went to Pittsburgh,” Dubas said.

“Our scouting staff thought he had played very well for Calgary in the minors, in particular. He kind of bounced around at the beginning of the year. From Pittsburgh, he was claimed by Calgary and then sent down by Calgary.”

Zohorna has had a tumultuous couple of years, ping-ponging across three organizations and two leagues. And an upper-body injury has cut his Marlies tenure to just six games.

One effective night will not turn him into an everyday Leaf, and with Noel Acciari (neck) and Ryan O’Reilly (finger) on the mend, Zohorna will soon go back to the farm.

But, hey, the big man sure made the most of his six minutes in the Hockey Night in Canada spotlight. And next time he gets a call, he’ll know how to find his way into the Leafs’ side of the rink.

“Certainly,” Keefe said, “with his effort tonight, he earned some trust.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Bunting sniped a wicked spin-and-shoot goal in the second period that would stand as the winner and earned himself a midgame promotion to Auston Matthews’ line.

An energetic effort and a positive step for an important role player working his way out of a dip in play.

“I’m very confident in who I am and who I am as a player,” Bunting said. “So, doesn’t matter where I’m playing. I want to contribute, and I want to help this team win.”

• Keefe on Tim Stützle, whose line outshot Toronto 7-1 at even strength: “Such dynamic skill, speed. He evades checks from defenders, creates passing lanes and shot lanes for himself. That line he plays on is as good as any line in the league.”

• Samsonov started in Ottawa, and Matt Murray gets the nod Sunday in Toronto versus Detroit simply because the coach is trying to balance his netminders’ home-road splits.

Coming into this weekend, Samsonov led Murray 22-9 in home starts, while Murray led his partner 16-14 in road starts.

“I think (Samsonov) will probably learn pretty quickly that as a dad, the road is helpful in terms of rest and preparation… and sleep, getting a night in the hotel,” Keefe said.

• Maple Leafs’ record when deploying an 11-and-7 lineup improved to 5-3-2.

“It’s getting easier now,” T.J. Brodie says. “The biggest thing is just staying mentally engaged.”

• Noted hockey fan Bill Burr, set to perform Sunday in Ottawa, was in the building to take in the game (alongside Nick Kypreos no less!). The comedian mentioned on his podcast that the Sens were the only Canadian NHL team he still needed to see live. Next, it’s onto the CFL.

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