Samsonov shines as Leafs down Jets in OT

TORONTO – Ilya Samsonov looked up and saw two Winnipeg Jets bearing down on a short-handed 2-on-0 break.

The Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender — demoted to the American Hockey League in December after a string of disastrous outings — wouldn’t have been at fault if either Adam Lowry or Morgan Barron found the back of the net.

After a month of dragging himself back into the fight, and potentially resurrecting a floundering career, Samsonov did exactly what he’s done since passing through waivers.

He battled.

The Leafs goaltender stopped both Lowry and Barron on that jaw-dropping sequence in the second period as part of a 32-save performance before Auston Matthews scored the winner at 4:13 of overtime Wednesday as Toronto defeated Winnipeg 1-0 on a night the home side was largely second-best.

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Except for its netminder.

A venue where Samsonov was jeered earlier this season, fans inside Scotiabank Arena chanted the Russian’s name after his double-stop on that 2-on-0.

“I almost cry,” he said of the crowd’s response.

Samsonov, who at one point this season had the NHL’s worst save percentage, was sent to the AHL in hopes of figuring things out — both on the ice and between the ears.

Now back in the NHL, he seems to have done not only that, but has also regained the confidence of teammates after registering his second shutout of 2023-24.

“Unbelievable,” Matthews said after Toronto improved to 24-14-8. “Best player on the ice for us, by far.”

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Laurent Brossoit, meanwhile, stopped 29 shots for Winnipeg (30-11-5), which went down to five defencemen in the first period when Josh Morrissey left with a lower-body injury after blocking a shot.

The Jets, who entered play third in the NHL’s overall standings, saw a streak of 34 consecutive games where they allowed three goals or fewer come to an end with Monday’s 4-1 defeat in Boston.

“Best game of the road trip,” Winnipeg head coach Rick Bowness said. “Give the five (defencemen) a lot of credit.”

The Jets started the extra period with 1:25 of power-play time, but Samsonov stood tall on a couple of Kyle Conner chances.

Matthews then took a pass from Morgan Rielly at the lip of Brossoit’s crease to redirect his 39th NHL-best goal of the campaign following some great work from Nick Robertson.

The Leafs spilled off the bench in celebration, with many heading to Samsonov’s end of the rink.

The 26-year-old owned the team’s player-of-game WWE championship belt after picking up a 3-1 road victory Sunday in Seattle, and tried to hand it off to Matthews.

The sniper passed it right back.

“I’ve always just loved his attitude and the way he goes about his business,” Matthews said. “It wasn’t going very well for him there for a little bit, but that’s when he worked harder.

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“Mentally, he’s as solid as any goalie I’ve been around.”

Samsonov was asked post-game what he’s learned about himself over the last month.

“How you forget this bad moment in the past,” he said. “And how you’re ready to continue.”

Toronto came into Wednesday 2-4-1 over its last seven games, including a 2-2-0 road trip that culminated with that Sunday victory where Samsonov showed flashes of the goaltender who led the Leafs to their first playoff series victory in nearly two decades last spring.

“I’ve been in those moments,” Toronto winger Mitch Marner said of his teammate’s struggles. “Shows how mentally strong he is.”

Winnipeg was faster and harder on pucks in the opening period, taking advantage of plenty of sloppy Toronto play that kept Samsonov busy.

The Leafs’ struggling power play — 1-for-15 over its last seven games — got a chance early in the second, but Winnipeg had the best opportunity on that 2-on-0 break.

Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe lit into his team, and then benched Matthews, Marner and William Nylander when the Leafs got another man advantage later in the period.

“They make a mistake,” Keefe said. “A chance for me to hold them accountable … but as we all know, those guys have been excellent.”

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Toronto got its third power play with five minutes to go in the second, but Keefe wasn’t done sending a message to his big guns.

“That’s on us,” Matthews said. “We’ve got to be better.”

Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Rielly and John Tavares started the Leafs’ fourth power play early in the third. The group snapped the puck around with more authority, but were again unable to find the range.

Samsonov then stopped Rasmus Kupari on a 2-on-1 to keep the teams deadlocked and force overtime, where he again stayed in the fight.

“Credit to him,” Keefe said. “Virtually everyone, I’m sure, had counted him out.

“Even internally, there’s questions … ‘How’s he going to be able to bounce back here?'”

Samsonov, at least for now, has provided the answer.


Winnipeg hosts Toronto on Saturday in the rematch before the teams’ bye week ahead of the all-star break.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2024.


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