May 27th, 2024

Samsonov’s solid play, mental resolve helps Leafs tie Bruins 1-1: ‘He’s battled hard’

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on April 23, 2024.

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov (35) makes a save against a shot by Boston Bruins centre John Beecher (19) during the second period of Game 2 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series, Monday, April 22, 2024, in Boston. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Charles Krupa

BOSTON – Ilya Samsonov had just made a small mistake that quickly turned into a massive problem.

The Maple Leafs goaltender fumbled a puck late in the first period of Game 2 against the Bruins. The sequence quickly mushroomed into a jarring shot off the side of his mask, a lost defensive zone faceoff, a goal for David Pastrnak and a 2-1 Boston lead.

Already down 1-0 in this best-of-seven series – and without much going its way – Toronto could have gone completely off the rails.

Samsonov, meanwhile, might have folded under similar circumstances back in the winter when his very NHL future appeared in doubt.

Both the Leafs and their netminder instead stabilized themselves following that tough moment – and departed TD Garden all square.

Samsonov was stellar in making 27 saves Monday in Toronto’s gutsy 3-2 victory that evened the first-round matchup at a game apiece following a 5-1 loss in Saturday’s opener.

“We didn’t think about this,” the 27-year-old said of the disastrous set of events late that led to Boston’s second goal in Game 2. “We’re just moving forward. We forgot.

“We stay moment-by-moment.”

That mentality also helped Samsonov get back to the Leafs following an ugly stretch earlier in the schedule that saw him sit with the league’s worst save percentage before an American Hockey League demotion.

There was no guarantee he would be back.

But Samsonov is a fighter. And fight he did to not only return to the NHL, but earn the Leafs’ starting job in the playoffs.

“We love him and he’s a big part of our locker room,” said Leafs captain John Tavares, whose team has responded in difficult moments all season. “It just adds into our belief in him.”

Following his December demotion, Samsonov went 18-4-2 with a .905 save percentage. There were still some wobbly moments down the stretch – he allowed 14 combined goals over his final two regular-season contests and Game 1 – but the Russian hasn’t wavered.

“How he’s been able to battle and stay with it and compete, as a teammate, you admire that,” Tavares continued. “You appreciate that and certainly respect the hell out of it.

“He’s battled hard all year, which hasn’t been the way you’d draw it up, but you just keep putting your head down and going forward.”

Samsonov made a couple of key stops in Game 2 to keep his team in the fight, including a save at full stretch on Bruins captain Brad Marchand in the third period before Toronto sniper Auston Matthews provided the winning margin on a breakaway.

“I really, honestly, admire his mindset,” Matthews, who led the NHL with 69 goals in the regular season, said of his goalie. “He’s got a very short memory, and if he has a bad game or a bad stretch, he clears it out of his mind and just gets back to it.

“So steady and calm.”

Toronto, which snapped an eight-game losing streak against Boston dating back to November 2022, will need more of the same when the best-of-seven series shifts to Toronto beginning Wednesday.

“They do a lot of good things that are going to stress your team defensively,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said of the Bruins. “(Samsonov) had to be there for us “¦ he’s a big part of this one.”

Toronto has wrestled home ice advantage from Boston, but the task remains a tall one against an opponent that was once again in the Presidents’ Trophy race and owns the psychological edge – at least on the Leafs’ fan base – with three series victories over its Original Six rival in the last dozen years.

“Still looking at areas we can be better and be more disciplined,” Tavares said. “They’re going to want to respond “¦ we’ve got to keep elevating.”

Samsonov will use the same process to get himself ready for that challenge – one that didn’t seem likely four months ago.

“We need to reset mind,” he said. “Forgot this game and continue to work.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 23, 2024.

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