Is starting Ilya Samsonov in game two the right move for the Maple Leafs?

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Colin Hunter
1 year ago
It’s been a tough couple days in Leaf land.
On Tuesday night, the Leafs opened their much anticipated playoff series against the Lightning with a disappointing 7-3 loss on home ice. While it was only one game of the series – and as many have pointed out, the Leafs won game one last year in a convincing fashion only to go on to lose – it is fair to be legitimately concerned about the performance of some players.
One of such players is goaltender Ilya Samsonov. Samsonov was pulled after the second period, allowing six goals on 29 shots and posting a -2.99 goals saved above expected.
Overall, this game brings his playoff record to 1-7 with a .895 save percentage.
Now, it wouldn’t be fair to blame the loss entirely on Samsonov. The Leafs did play poorly in front of him, particularly to start the game. However, it was clear to see that he was not on his game, and a couple early (or late) saves could have shifted the momentum of the game.
This afternoon, coach Sheldon Keefe announced that Samsonov will be the starter for game two.
Given Joseph Woll’s relatively strong start to his NHL career, there was some belief that turning to him with Murray out may be viable. Keefe refused to comment on this possibility following game one, making it seem that starting Woll could be a legitimate consideration.
So, is starting Samsonov in what will be a massive game two the right choice?
Samsonov came to Toronto having largely failed to meet expectations in Washington. Entering the season as the presumed backup, he eventually won the starter’s job due to his strong play and Murray’s injury issues. This season, he posted career best numbers, posting a 27-10-5 record to go with a .919 save percentage and 18.0 goals saved above expected, good for 10th in the league among goalies with 10+ games played.
Joseph Woll on the other hand, came into the season as 4th on the Leafs’ depth chart. Through strong play in the AHL, he earned an NHL shot with Murray injured and has proven to be up to the task. In 7 games with the Leafs, Woll went 6-1-0 with a .932 save percentage and 5.7 goals saved above expected.
As a former first round pick at only 26 years old, it wasn’t shocking that Samsonov had a breakout season. However, the Leafs have made goalies look good in the past, only to have their play deteriorate. So heading into the playoffs, while confidence in Samsonov was generally high, there was still that seed of doubt.
As a fan, it’s easy to be reactionary. Particularly when in comes to the playoffs, small sample sizes can feel sufficient to make conclusions on a player’s ability. While it’s important to recognize this fact and avoid rushing to such conclusions, it’s also important to realize that the playoffs, particularly in the NHL, are a different game than the regular season.
With this in mind, I think that giving Samsonov another chance is the right choice. However, his leash should be shortened considerably. Samsonov is the guy who got the Leafs where they are this year, and his play has warranted him another shot. Having said this, the pressure of the playoffs can be overwhelming, particularly for goaltenders. If Samsonov falters again, his previous postseason failures may indicate that he simply cannot handle this pressure.
In that case, Leafs fans had better hope that Joseph Woll is up to the task.

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