The Toronto Maple Leafs need to ride Ilya Samsonov’s momentum

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Steven Ellis
1 month ago
It would be hard to blame you if you were nervous seeing Ilya Samsonov skate onto the ice at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday.
He has an overall winning record at home, now 5-1-1. Despite that, he has a save percentage of .885 and four games with four or more goals scored.
It’s been hard to trust him this season, given his well-documented struggles. But when Samsonov needed it most – and the opportunity to build upon a big win over Seattle this past weekend – the 26-year-old delivered one of his performances for the Buds, stopping all 32 shots against a red-hot Winnipeg Jets team to win the game in regulation.
From the crowd’s roar, everyone in that building last night knew what they were seeing. That was the Sammy we all knew was hiding. Kudos to coach Sheldon Keefe for going back to Samsonov. With the Leafs having to fight to get themselves out of a wild-card spot, any dropped points right now – especially with the team getting next week off – would sting. Martin Jones has been good this season, and it would have made total sense to go back to him.
But Keefe knew how important Sunday’s win was for Samsonov, and trying to build off that momentum was crucial – even with three days between games. They needed to keep building his confidence because the mental side of goaltending is everything.
With three good starts in a row, Samsonov is playing some of his best hockey of the season. It’s a small sample size, but he has a .933 save percentage and 1.14 goals saved above average rating since returning on Jan. 14 – a 4-2 loss to Detroit. Given he’s been at the bottom of essentially every stat category for most of the season, he’ll take the little wins, however he gets them.
And that’s why the Leafs should give him the net again on Saturday when they take on the Jets again. The Leafs won’t play again until Feb. 5, so you might as well use him and show they have confidence in him again. You could see how the team celebrated his last two wins, but it has to feel normal again – like they don’t have to play differently in front of him. Toronto is still struggling to play complete games, especially in their own zone, but they didn’t want goaltending to also be a distraction.
It’s hard to ride momentum when you’re building it up before a break, but it only makes sense to give him as many starts as possible over the next few weeks. They’ll hopefully get Joseph Woll back after the festivities, but he’ll need time to really ease in. Jones will still be around, and perhaps they will go the three-headed monster route. That rarely works, but you’ve got a guy who needs to prove he can be a starter again, someone coming off injury and a 34-year-old you signed to add some depth. It’s hard to feel overly confident in the crease situation with this organization.
It’s still up to Samsonov to keep performing and get himself in a position to succeed continuously. The No. 1 gig in Toronto is still wide open, although Woll likely still has the edge given how he played prior to the injury. But if Samsonov is feeling good again, give him every start possible. Let him earn the gig back. You paid him to be your guy, and he has a lot still to prove. Maybe it was just a really bad stretch for an otherwise quality goaltender – the one that led Toronto to its first Stanley Cup playoff series victory in nearly 20 years.
He has to prove it. So let him do it.

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