Ilya Samsonov deserves his flowers for role in Maple Leafs’ turnaround

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
1 month ago
In a season riddled with ups and downs, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been playing some of their best hockey of the season as of late. They’re 8-2-0 in their last ten games, their leading goal scorer is on a legitimate push for 70 markers, and they’ve banded together and rallied in the wake of Morgan Rielly’s suspension for the crosscheck
Auston Matthews immediately comes to mind when you think of the players that have played a role in the team’s recent hot stretch, and with three hat tricks and 16 goals in his last 13 to bring him to 49 goals in 53 games on the season, it’s hard not to. Having said that, he’s been scoring at this pace all season, and the wins haven’t been strung together until recently. While Matthews’ torrid rampage is and should be celebrated, it’s hard to imagine the wins would be coming as easily without the sheer 180 we’re seeing from Ilya Samsonov. 
We all know the struggles Samsonov has faced this season, so we won’t dwell on it too much. But, when you go from a top-ten goaltender in save percentage (SV%) and goals-against average (GAA) to, at one point, the league’s worst goalie from a statistical standpoint, it’s hard not to talk about the downfall. Especially considering the lowest of lows the team has seen from Petr Mrazek and Jack Campbell in recent years. At the time he was placed on waivers and sent to the AHL, he had a not-great record of 5-2-6 with a disastrous .862 SV% and 3.94 GAA. It was reminiscent of the Mrazek/Campbell days in that the Leafs essentially had to go into each game with the mindset that they’d be allowing four or more goals. 
When Samsonov went to the AHL, he didn’t play a single game. General manager Brad Treliving stressed the importance of getting the former Washington Capitals first-rounder’s mental game back, considering that’s where the brunt of the problems began. Stopping pucks against lower-level competition wasn’t going to help at all – he needed a break from games and a chance to regain his composure outside of the spotlight. 
And so far, it looks like it’s worked wonders. 
To say the pressure was on Samsonov when he came back would have been an understatement, especially when you consider that Martin Jones was starting to show signs of slipping after his hot start as a Leaf. This is a guy who was being paid $3.5 million, nearly doubling last season’s salary, and expected to be the number one goaltender looking to shed the narrative of not being able to perform when it matters. Goaltenders always naturally have it rough in the Toronto market, and when you consider the circumstances surrounding Samsonov’s return, he essentially had the weight of a boulder on his shoulders. So how did he handle it? He stood tall (bending at the knees, of course) and lifted that boulder off of his shoulders himself. 
Since his first game back on January 14, he has a record of 7-2-0 with a GAA of 2.10 and a SV% of .916. He’s allowed two goals or less in five of his last nine games and has a shutout in that span too. For the first time all season, he looks like the guy the Leafs signed to be their starting goaltender. And here’s the kicker to that – the Leafs have one of the league’s best offences. They don’t need Carey Price-esque performances night in and night out, as much as I’m sure that would be appreciated. All they need is a goaltender who can give them a good chance to win. And that’s exactly what he’s given them in recent games.
Samsonov and Matthews aren’t the only ones responsible for the team’s strong play. They’ve had an uptick in depth scoring, specifically from unsung heroes like Bobby McMann, who has six goals in his last four games. They’ve tightened up and limited their mistakes on defence in the wake of Rielly’s suspension, and dare I say they look like they’ve grown some thicker skin when it comes to defending themselves and showing opposing teams they’re not going to be walked all over. 
All of this is great, but doesn’t matter if they’re not getting at least decent goaltending. 
And so far, last year’s version of Samsonov is starting to re-emerge from the shadows.

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