The door opened for Ilya Samsonov when Matt Murray gave up four goals on eight shots against the Florida Panthers.
And the Russian goaltender has busted right through it.
Making his third consecutive start in goal for just the second time this season (and first with Matt Murray healthy to play) Samsonov helped the Toronto Maple Leafs survive a dreadful first period in helping his team defeat the New York Islanders 5-2 on Monday.
It wasn’t the best game, statistically that the 25-year-old Samsonov has had with the Maple Leafs this season. He made 29 saves on 31 shots against the Islanders.
But it was the type of saves he had to make, particularly early against New York.
Just 3:37 into the game, Casey Cizikas has what looks like an easy tap-in opportunity, but Samsonov is quick on the read and slid across fast enough to get a piece of it.
Although he gave up a goal late in the opening frame, his 12-save performance in the opening period saw the goaltender have to deal with several high-danger chances.
In fact, Samsonov has had to deal with a lot of bad stretches for the Maple Leafs during this last little stretch.
Toronto allowed 4.8 expected goals against the Islanders, according to NaturalStatTrick.com. Samsonov allowed just two.
During this three-game run as the team’s starter of choice, Samsonov has allowed five goals when the opposition’s expected goals total in all situations was 11.67.
Sheldon Keefe was watching the footage of Samsonov’s game with goalie coach Curtis Sanford after the game before talking to reporters. When he finished, Keefe described Samsonov’s play after the game as excellent but also admitted that he defers most of the evaluation to Sanford.
“He felt this was as strong of a game as he’s played in terms of what he is asking him to do and the process he is looking for him to play with,” Keefe said of Sanford’s assessment.
And gaining that trust within the coaching staff is paramount to whatever the Leafs decide to do with their goaltenders going forward. Keefe hasn’t had a stable and obvious No. 1 since his first season as head coach with the Maple Leafs during the 2019-20 season. The following year, Jack Campbell overtook Frederik Andersen due to injury. The following season, Campbell started strong but began to fizzle toward the end of the season and into the playoffs.
When the season started, it looked like it was Murray’s crease to lose. Well, he hasn’t so much lost it as Samsonov has taken it away.
That could change between now and the end of the regular season, but as Samsonov continues to improve, so do his chances of starting in Game 1 of the postseason.