Ilya Samsonov has a chance to cement himself as a starter for the Toronto Maple Leafs
It wasn’t that long ago that Ilya Samsonov was putting up Vezina Trophy-caliber numbers.
It was a small sample size, to be sure, but the numbers the 25-year-old Russian had in the first half of the season were few goalies. In mid-December, Samsonov’s .953 5-on-5 save percentage topped the league, and he was near the top in every other category. But over his next five games from Dec. 15 to Jan. 7, Samsonov had an .867 save percentage and a minus-4.73 goals against average at 5-on-5, which ranked him 64th in 68 goals and last in 33 goals against. To play five games in that span. Matt Murray wasn’t much better, but Samsonov was right down there.
Samsonov got off to a shaky start, but sent his way through the final two rounds after stopping every shot. Plus overtime, in a comeback attempt against Florida on Tuesday, coach Sheldon Keefe elected to go back to Samsonov on Thursday against Winnipeg. Murray’s struggles of late have certainly been concerning, so this is a perfect opportunity for Samsonov to steal a game and get back in the win column.
Samsonov has a 13-4-1 overall record with two shutouts, worth more than $1.8 million to the team. But with him a pending RFA, and Josef Woll torn to the AHL, we’re starting to get to the point in the season where the future is discussed. But that’s a story for another day.
For now, momentum is supposed to return to the crease. And that’s hard to get when you swap two guys almost every game. They are both playing great when they are playing as great as they were earlier in the season. But when things get uncomfortable, the spotlight returns to what has been a sore spot for the past few seasons.
In Keefe’s view, the decision to go back to Samsonov after starting Murray earlier this week was all status quo.
“I think it’s easy to make a decision in a case like this (starting goaltender),” Keefe said Thursday. “Sammy came in and did a great job for us (Tuesday). Murray is coming off two in a row so it made sense.”
Right now, it’s all about how he reacts to bad games, and he’s had a few recently So there’s no better chance to restore the fans’ faith in him than a big game against a Winnipeg team with an incredible performance. Samsonov made 30 saves in a big 4-1 performance in October while filling in for an injured Murray, and that’s when he started turning heads. He’ll remember that, and after saving Toronto’s bacon earlier this week, he’ll be riding high.
Again, every beginning is an opportunity for Samsonov to prove that he is a man. He’ll start tonight, and possibly Monday against the New York Islanders if the Leafs continue to bounce between two goalies. The Rangers, Senators, Capitals and Bruins are all on the docket in the near future, so there are some notable opportunities to show up.
But tonight, against a dangerous Jets squad, all eyes will be on Samsonov.