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Ilya Samsonov vs. Andrei Vasilevskiy: Sizing up the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first-round goaltending battle

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Photo credit:Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports
Steven Ellis
10 months ago
And here we go again.
It wasn’t that long ago that Leafs Nation was reeling from a difficult Game 7 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Leafs had multiple opportunities to close out the series, but as the story has gone over the past decade, it wasn’t meant to be.
So, when it became clear Toronto and Tampa were going to meet up again – and that reality sunk in around November – you just had to wonder what was going to be different this time. The team has added depth at every position, while Tampa Bay still looks like the same strong group we’ve become accustomed to.
For Toronto, there’s one major difference: the man between the pipes. Ilya Samsonov is the No. 1 in Toronto, replacing Jack Campbell from a year ago and outplaying Matt Murray all season long. He’s going up against the best goaltender from the past decade, but anything can happen in a seven-game situation. Especially for Samsonov, who has stolen more than a handful of games this season.
It’s going to be a good matchup between two of the best Russian goalies in the league. So, let’s break things down:

Playoff History

No goaltender over the past decade has been as good as Vasilevskiy in the post-season. In 99 starts, he has a 63-38-0 record with a .923 save percentage and seven shutouts. Six of those donuts have come in elimination games, which was a big reason why the Bolts have advanced to the Cup final three years in a row. When the games matter, no goaltender is better than Vasilevskiy.
Samsonov has just eight playoff games to his credit, going 1-6-0 with a .907 save percentage with Washington. Those loses weren’t all his fault, but his inability to get the job done is partly why the Capitals elected to move on from him in the first place. Samsonov’s -2.11 goals saved above average puts him near the bottom of the league over the past two years, while Vasilevskiy dwarfs everyone with a 15.94 GSAA.
So when it comes to playoff experience, it isn’t exactly close.

The Season to Date

There were questions as to who would come out as the No. 1 in Toronto this year. Matt Murray seemed to have the edge, given his championship success and experience. But Samsonov was the young guy trying to bounce back from a rough stretch in Washington that saw him go from the future of the crease to in the doghouse quite quickly.
But Samsonov was fantastic, posting a 27-10-5 record with four shutouts and a .919 save percentage. Samsonov’s advanced analytics were among the best in the NHL in the first half before eventually hitting a wall around Christmas. He ended things off with a 3-1-1 record over the final five games, allowing just six goals and finishing things off with a strong 45-save effort against Florida. This was easily Samsonov’s best season of his career, and he’s established himself as the team’s goalie of the future if the Leafs can come to an agreement with the pending UFA.
Vasilevsky, meanwhile, was business as usual. He had four shutouts and a 34-22-4 record to go along with a .915 save percentage – 0.001 below his total from a year ago. Once again, Vasilevskiy was one of the best goaltenders in the league, but it almost felt quieter than usual because of just how good he’s been in recent years. He’s riding a six-year streak with at least 30 wisn or more, and his playing time went down by three games this season – perhaps he’s a bit more rested?

Season Series

It’s crazy, but Samsonov has just two starts against Tampa Bay – and neither were with Toronto. He made 26 stops in a win back on Dec. 14, 2019, and then stopped 25 en route to a win last season. Those starts were too spread out and too long ago to really matter, but it’s crazy to think he’s had so little experience against a team like that.
Vasilevskiy, meanwhile, is 14-10-2 with a .920 save percentage in 26 regular games against the Leafs during his career. Of course, he snagged four wins a year ago during the playoffs, but he actually lost both of his starts against Toronto this season – including the game earlier this week.
Regular season stats are fun and all, but all that matters is how you play when it matters most. And that’s where Vasilevskiy has a clear advantage.

What to Expect

After watching Jack Campbell go toe-to-toe with Vasilevskiy a year ago, it’s Samsonov’s turn to do the same. And maybe it’s me, but this is the most confident I’ve felt about the Leafs advancing out of the first round in a normal playoff format – not those weirder, COVID-affected 2020 and 2021 seasons. When Samsonov is hot, he can hang with the best of them this year.
Still, Vasilevskiy is still Vasilevskiy, and the Lightning are still the Lightning. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if the Bolts went the distance again this year. They’re a heavyweight that isn’t afraid of anyone, and if they beat Toronto, they’ll give Boston a challenge. Vasilevskiy is one of the best playoff performers we’ve seen in decades, and he’s still in his prime.
Samsonov can’t be anything but magnificent if the Leafs are going to pull through here. And given the highs this season has brought us, there’s a solid possibility Samsonov could shine through as long as the team gives him adequate support, something we haven’t seen much in the past few years come playoff time.

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