March 16, 2023, 00:01
TORONTO – One month after the biggest week of the season for the Toronto Maple Leafs, a familiar question lingers as they begin their search for redemption in the first round.
Game 1, under the lights, more pressure on the shoulders of these Leafs – who’s at the net?
After years of running in the postseason with a high-flying offense plagued by defensive issues, goaltending issues and killer instinct issues, the Leafs head into the final stretch of the 2022-23 campaign. With 80 percent of the season in the bag, the question of where the target will be, somehow, remains unanswered.
In one corner is two-time champion Matt Murray, who was signed to claim the role. On the other hand, there’s Ilya Samsonov, who proved Wednesday night that he’s the clear answer for the Maple Leafs this time around.
“I thought it was great,” Austen Matthews said of Samsono from the bowels of Scotiabank Arena after a brief exchange with the defending champions that ended in a 2-1 loss on penalties. “He made some great saves for us and kept us in the game. When we allowed breakaways, the strange rhythm, stood out.
“He did everything he had to do. It’s one of those games that can go either way.”
It would be hard to blame Samsono for not going Toronto’s way tonight, especially given the nature of the two shots that hit him.
In the first opening frame of 14 minutes, on a right hand, a pass from Mikko Rantanen, as Leafs defenseman Jake McCabe tried to disrupt the shooting lane, the puck changed lanes unexpectedly and moved all five holes. Samsonov was ready to parry a one-shot effort at the far post.
Another came after 45 minutes, when Nathan MacKinnon, with some of the fastest hands and one of the least predictable attacks in the game, went one-on-one on Samsonov in the shootout.
[brightcove videoID=6322645273112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]
McKinnon did what he usually does, his skills, the only shooting attempt converted by either team in the contest, finished off the night.
The Maple Leafs move by one point, at least, more for Samsono than anyone else in blue and white.
On a night that saw the Avs repeatedly inhabit the Toronto zone, Samsono’s team gave up five man-advantage opportunities to Colorado’s lethal top unit from the opening period until overtime. With his Leafs finishing with the lowest shot total of any game this season (18), giving the opposition few chances along the way, it was Samsonov who kept them in contention.
“I thought I was locked up,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said after the final buzzer rang. But whatever we gave up, in the slot or whatever, it was done. He looked really athletic and dynamic with some of the saves he did with his hands. I thought he was great.
“In a game where the goalkeeper didn’t get many opportunities to shine, I thought he was still a standout for us.”
The netminder’s best moment came late in the third, when Rantanen went to the wall and found Makar in acres of space, an echo of the situation that saw Rielly’s count first. With the game on and the Leafs playing with fire all night, Samsonov flew to the top of his crease to keep Capricorn at bay.
“He’s like he’s been all year, I think he’s confident,” Tavares said of the No. 35. “You see him as aggressive, challenging shooters. He uses his frame and his movement, his quickness, he takes a lot of the net. He continues to fight. He is a true competitor ».
Netminder characterized the night in the same way.
“A good fight,” Samsonov said after the game, still with a look of irritated disappointment on his face at being blown out by MacKinnon’s shooting attempt. “Both teams wanted to win today.”
No. Trying to do it against elite hitters like 29 and 8 is a tough ask.
“He’s a little different than (Connor) McDavid and (Leon) Draisaitl, but again, a lot of speed,” the netminder said of taking on MacKinnon and Makar. “You have to be a little bit prepared before these guys come into the zone, you have to be prepared for everything. You have to see where the striker moves, where the D moves. These are really smart players.
In the end, the brilliance of the defending champions, and good luck, won the day. However, in the eyes of their goalkeeper, the blue and whites can still get something out of this one.
“It was a good tournament before the playoffs,” Samsonov said. “My teammates played well today. I don’t like shooting a bit. … But we have a point.
“Keep your head up and keep moving.”