TORONTO – Ilya Samsonov hadn’t played in more than two weeks.
Sub-par performances coupled with an illness sidelined the Maple Leafs goaltender as Joseph Woll took command of Toronto’s No. 1 goaltending job.
With his crease partner now out for the foreseeable future, Samsonov is set to get a run of games.
Saturday was a solid start.
Auston Matthews scored twice and Samsonov made 18 saves for his first shutout of the season as the Leafs ground out a 4-0 victory over the Nashville Predators.
“Long time no see,” the Russian netminder said with a smile to reporters in the locker room. “Great game for us.”
Samsonov got the call after Woll suffered a high ankle sprain in Thursday’s 4-3 victory in Ottawa.
“Some shock,” Samsonov, who watched Matt Murray deal with a string of injuries last season, said of his teammate going down. “Not too fun to see.”
The Leafs were not only minus Woll, but continue to play with a battered defence corps that’s missing John Klingberg (hip), Timothy Liljegren (high ankle sprain) and Mark Giordano (broken finger). William Lagesson also sat out with an illness.
“There’s a subconscious thing there,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said of players focusing on structure with significant absences. “Team game took care of everything, allowed everybody to settle in.”
David Kampf and Noah Gregor, into the empty net, had the other goals for Toronto (14-6-4). William Nylander added two assists, while John Tavares had one to give him 998 career points.
“We played, finally, 60 minutes — full game,” said Kampf, whose group had battled through eight consecutive one-goal contests. “Every line rolling … hopefully we can keep it going.”
Kevin Lankinen stopped 33 shots for Nashville (14-13-0), which downed the Leafs 3-2 in overtime Oct. 28 and had won three straight overall.
“Didn’t play very good,” Predators head coach Andrew Brunette said. “I don’t think any of us played very good.”
Samsonov, who entered with a 4-1-3 record, a pedestrian .878 save percentage, and a 3.58 goals-against average in 10 starts, saw action for the first time since a 4-3 overtime loss in Chicago on Nov. 24.
“If you could draw it up as a perfect game for him, that would probably be it,” Keefe said. “There’s a little bit of a pressure and attention on that position.
“For Sammy to come in and have a night like that is great.”
Matthews said Samsonov’s mood didn’t change over the last few weeks as he worked to rediscover his form.
“It’s just Sammy,” said the centre. “He’s pretty focused. He has fun out there and he likes to compete. You never really see that sway too much.
“Always seems to keep the right demeanour and the right attitude.”
Kampf opened the scoring in what was a low-event game to that point at 14:15 of the second period when he took a pass from Conor Timmins before splitting two defenders and roofing his third goal of the season and second in as many games.
“Sick,” Nylander said of the effort.
Matthews doubled that lead at 17:57 when Lankinen could only get a piece of Nylander’s pass on a give-and-go for his 17th.
Samsonov, who picked up the 11th shutout of his career and first since April 1, made a good save off a Cody Glass deflection on a power play late in the period after Tommy Novak hit the post.
Leafs defenceman Jake McCabe delivered a huge hit on Luke Evangelista in the third and then dropped the gloves with Kiefer Sherwood.
Matthews put the game to bed with 3:11 left in regulation when he took a pass from Nylander and buried his 18th. Gregor added a short-handed empty netter, his fourth, with under two minutes to go.
“That’s what we’re looking for,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “Third period was pretty clean.”
Lankinen stopped Mitch Marner and Max Domi on a pair of early chances before Samsonov denied Colton Sissons from the slot on a power play to kick-start his bounceback showing.
“Every player goes through stretches where you’re not going to be playing your best,” Nylander said. “You know you’re gonna get out of it. He did a great job tonight getting out of it and finding rhythm and finding his game.
“So happy for him.”
Predators centre Ryan O’Reilly and defenceman Luke Schenn played in Toronto for the first time since leaving in free agency.
The pair were acquired in separate deals before last season’s trade deadline before helping the Leafs down Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs.
“Special,” O’Reilly, who heard some boos Saturday, said of suiting up for Toronto following Nashville’s morning skate. “Such an amazing experience.”
Nashville plays in Montreal on Sunday, while Toronto visits the New York Islanders on Monday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 9, 2023.
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