The veteran goaltender was recalled on an emergency basis for Thursday’s game against the Ottawa Senators due to backup Ilya Samsonov‘s illness, then found himself thrust into action late in a tight game when the Leafs’ breakout No. 1, Joseph Woll, needed two teammates to help him off the ice.
“Yeah, it’s brutal. You don’t wish that upon anyone,” teammate Mitch Marner said, following Toronto’s bittersweet 4-3 road victory. “Hopefully news comes back somewhat positive.”
The early outlook is not.
Crunching his lanky frame to make one of the more innocuous of his 29 saves during a hectic 31-shot night, Woll lurched forward in palpable pain. An audible gasp rose from the well-represented Leafs fans inside the Canadian Tire Centre.
Following a lengthy conversation with athletic therapist Paul Ayotte, Woll lumbered his arms around the shoulders of Ryan Reaves and T.J. Brodie, who helped him off the ice.
The goaltender couldn’t place weight on his left leg and was later spotted leaving the rink on crutches.
“It’s unfortunate, right?” head coach Sheldon Keefe said.
“He’s been playing so well, and he’s building such great momentum here on his season and his career. It’s a setback here. Now he’s going to miss time for sure. We’ll determine the extent of it once we get home. But, obviously, he’s the big reason why we get two points here tonight.”
Making his fifth consecutive start, Woll was one of the only Leafs dialled in from puck drop, as the Senators pressed and swarmed, and the visitors had as much difficulty exiting their zone as Parliament commuters do reaching the CTC parking lot in rush hour.
He stoned Mathieu Joseph on a breakaway, denied Josh Norris in the blue paint, and supplied Vladimir Tarasenko with nightmare fuel with a pair of 10-bell, cross-crease glove flashes on two-on-ones.
“Those two on the backside could’ve easily been goals — and he owned him,” said William Nylander, the winning goal scorer.
Added Morgan Rielly: “We hope he’s OK. He’s been playing outstanding for us.”
Woll’s steady performance, perfect shootout record, and excellent .916 save percentage have played a huge role in papering over Toronto’s defensive injuries and inconsistent efforts.
Consider: This team’s past eight games have been decided by a single goal. Dressing a netminder who can come up with a clutch stop or two, which Ottawa did not have Thursday, can be all the difference in the muddled middle of the Atlantic Division race.
Even prior to Woll’s injury, goaltending depth was a topic on Keefe’s mind.
“It’s six games in the next 10 days with nine in 17 leading up to Christmas here,” the coach noted at morning skate.
“So, we’re gonna need two goaltenders for certain. Maybe three.”
Well, let’s talk about that third-stringer.
Still loitering on the UFA market in August, the 33-year-old Jones accepted a paltry $875,000, one-year deal from Leafs GM Brad Treliving for this very occasion.
Armed with 445 games of regular-season experience, plus multiple deep playoff runs during his San Jose Sharks prime, an admittedly “little stiff” Jones was composed in his 10-minute relief appearance, stopping nine of 10 pucks fired his way and withstanding the Sens’ pulled-goalie push.
Clearing waivers before opening night and splitting time with Toronto’s goalie prospects on the farm, Jones has played the role of solid teammate while getting humbled by a pay cut and his first stint in the AHL in a decade.
Healthy and patient, the North Vancouver native has been granted just five scattered appearances with the Marlies while busying himself with more practice time than a concert pianist.
“Just an awesome human being. Great dude to have around. Brings some good energy,” Marner said of Jones. “He knows how to win hockey games, and he’s done it for a long time as well. So, it’s great to have him — especially in these moments.”
Had Samsonov not been smacked with an illness this week, Jones wouldn’t have even been on the bench. Now, suddenly, it appears he’ll be leaned upon during Toronto’s busy December — albeit at the cost of Woll’s remarkable run.
“It’s tough to watch,” Jones said. “You don’t want to see that. But just tried to get my head in the game and get ready to go.
“Sometimes it helps. You’re not thinking too much… You just stop thinking, and then you’re just reacting to the play.”
How the Maple Leafs’ new tandem of Samsonov and Jones reacts to Woll’s undetermined absence could have a great impact on the team’s placement in the standings.
Keefe maintains that his faith in Jones is high and that he’s handled his newfound status as the club’s third goalie with “tremendous” professionalism.
“That’s why you signed veteran depth. We were fortunate when he got through waivers and he remained a part of our organization — and it’s for situations like this,” Keefe said.
“[Jones] comes in and does the job and makes sure we get our win. So, gives me confidence. Whether it’s the injuries we’ve faced on defence or what we went through here tonight, guys have found ways to rise above those things.”
Fox’s Fast Five
• Very cool to show up at a Senators weekday morning skate and see Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Neil, and Jacques Martin milling about. Recently, the organization has done a fantastic job of keeping some of its most esteemed alumni involved.
• Ottawa’s No. 1 defenceman, Thomas Chabot, played the full 82 last season but has appeared in just nine of his club’s 21 games this fall. After the game, the Senators placed him on LTIR and said he is expected to miss a month with a leg injury.
“I just feel for him,” said Jacob Chychrun. “He’s got a couple unlucky breaks, and I feel for him. I’ve been through it; I know it’s never easy being out. I know he wants to play more than anybody. And we just got to hold the fort down for him till he’s back.”
Jacob Bernard-Docker, 23, couldn’t make this team out of camp. Now, he’s operating on the Sens’ top pair. Bernard-Docker notched his first career goal Thursday.
“He went through waivers, and here he is. Didn’t pout about it. Got right back to work,” D.J. Smith says. “He’s giving us a chance to win every night.”
• Former Senator Bobby Ryan told JD Bunkis on Thursday that during his Battle of Ontario days, Chris Neil was undisputedly the teammate who got most jacked up to beat the Leafs: “He was putting on the foil every time.”
• Bit of a Nick-picky thing considering how little the second unit gets deployed, but it’s a little curious that Nick Robertson — whose greatest weapon is his shot — can’t get time on PP2.
I suppose Keefe wants to reward the more trustworthy veteran, Calle Järnkrok (not a bad shot himself), with some offensive ice time.
• John Tavares is up to 997 career points. The Maple Leafs head to Long Island on Monday.