It is not easy being an NHL goaltender.
All eyes are on them. Wins and losses sometimes get pinned on them. A team’s playoff success depends on how they play during the biggest point of the season.
Now, take all these things and imagine you are a goaltender for the Toronto Maple Leafs. This is a team that has not won a Stanley Cup since 1967 and year in and year out, they find ways to disappoint their huge fan base.
After getting knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the second round last season by the Florida Panthers, it was apparent that Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov was feeling a lot of pressure heading into this season. The team has the scoring to compete with anyone in the league, but keeping it out of their net consistently has always been an issue for this hockey club.
Samsonov, 26, got off to an awful start this season. He was allowing a lot of goals, giving up a lot of soft goals, and looked like a goaltender who had lost his way between the pipes.
The Leafs recognized that Samsonov was not himself, so they placed him on waivers back on Sunday, December 31st. They did so because they wanted him to clear his head and get back in the right frame of mind so that he could rejoin the team and play the way he did last season when he was 27-10-0-5 with a 2.33 goals-against average, a .919 save percentage, and four shutouts.
Well, at least for now, it appears that the move worked for both Samsonov and the Leafs. Since getting back into the net on January 14 against the Detroit Red Wings, he has made three starts and has posted some solid numbers:
- January 14th: Stopped 20 of 23 shots in a loss to the Detroit Red Wings
- January 21st: Stopped 16 of 17 shots in a win over the Seattle Kraken
- January 24th: Stopped all 32 shots he faced in a shutout win over the Winnipeg Jets
It was his game on Wednesday night, January 24th, against the Jets that showed both the Leafs and their fans that Samsonov can be an excellent goaltender when he is on top of his game. He stopped a two-on-none in the second period to keep the game scoreless and made several other high-quality saves in picking up his second shutout of the season.
In looking at the above, Samsonov now has two straight wins, has stopped 48 of the 49 shots he has faced, and he picked up a shutout. He may not be fully back, but there are signs that Samsonov is finding his game.
For starters, Samsonov is starting to look confident between the pipers again. He is challenging shooters, making saves on second and third opportunities, not allowing soft goals, and being a difference-maker in a positive way for his hockey club.
Samsonov is also coming up with big saves when his team needs them the most. This was especially the case in his team’s wins over the Kraken and the Jets as he was there time and time again to bail out his club’s defensive miscues.
He is also playing with a positive attitude. In an article by Lance Hornby of the Toronto Sun, Samsonov said he needed to learn how to have fun playing the game again.
“Stay positive is the most important thing,” said Samsonov, who stopped 36 of 40 total shots against Detroit (a close loss) and Seattle. “I just enjoy the locker room and to see the smiles.
“I talked a lot with the goalie coach, Curtis (Sanford), and Hannu (Toivonen, the Marlies instructor). We took a couple of steps back. I’d forgotten how to enjoy hockey.”
There is no doubt that Samsonov still has work to do to regain the trust of the team’s fans when it comes to being a goaltender that they can count on. With that said, he is doing all the right things by playing well, coming up big for his teammates, and winning hockey games, which is all that should matter to him and the Leafs.