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TORONTO — Ilya Samsonov said he had a case of the butterflies.
It didn’t show.
The 25-year-old goalie admitted his gut was churning when he was standing in the corridor waiting to skate onto the Scotiabank Arena ice for his Toronto Maple Leafs debut Saturday. Once the puck was dropped, however, he was calm, cool and collected in stopping all 16 shots in his 40 minutes of work in a 4-2 preseason loss to the Ottawa Senators.
Normally preseason results don’t mean too much, especially early on when players are attempting to find their legs and shed offseason rust. But for a Maple Leafs team that brought in goalies Samsonov and veteran Matt Murray this season, the performance was encouraging for player and team.
“I was nervous,” Samsonov said. “It was my first game with the new group, you know. It’s normal for a new player on the team.
“I really enjoy it here. Everyone supports me. I feel great. But being nervous is great for a human.”
The Maple Leafs have said the battle for the starting job is an open competition. Samsonov was impressive in his first opportunity in a Toronto jersey. Murray will get his initial turn against the Montreal Canadiens here Wednesday and is slated to play the first two periods, coach Sheldon Keefe said.
“When guys come to a new team, a new city, a new building, they want to do well, all those things, it’s natural to want to do well and that puts more emphasis on the game, which it shouldn’t be so early in camp,” Keefe said. “But it’s natural and I thought [Samsonov] did a really good job of what needed to be done.
“Samsonov looked really strong. There were a couple of scrambles around the net and he looked really strong, especially covering up the bottom of the net.”
Video: Motte collects 2 points in a 4-2 victory
This is about more than one or two preseason games. This is about the big picture in the Toronto crease.
This is the first time in six seasons that neither Frederik Andersen nor Jack Campbell will be the No. 1 goalie. Andersen (268) and Campbell (77) combined to appear in 345 of 454 regular-season games for the Maple Leafs since the beginning of the 2016-17 season, which translates into 76 percent of their games in that span.
Andersen’s five-year run with the Maple Leafs ended when he signed a two-year contract with the Carolina Hurricanes on July 28, 2021. He left Toronto with the fourth-most wins in team history (149), behind Turk Broda (304), Johnny Bower (219) and Felix Potvin (160).
Campbell was 31-9-6 with a 2.64 goals-against average, .914 save percentage and five shutouts in 49 games (47 starts) for the Maple Leafs last season. The 30-year-old signed a five-year $25 million contract ($5 million average annual value) with the Edmonton Oilers on July 13.
The Maple Leafs did not win a single Stanley Cup Playoff series with Andersen and Campbell, so they pivoted to Samsonov and Murray, trying to win its first playoff series since 2004.
There is risk involved with each goalie.
Though Murray helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017, the 28-year-old was limited by injuries the past two seasons with the Senators. He was 15-25-3 with a 3.23 GAA, .899 save percentage and three shutouts in 47 games (45 starts) for the Senators before they traded him to the Maple Leafs on July 11 with a third-round pick in the 2023 NHL Draft and a seventh-round selection in the 2024 NHL Draft for future considerations.
Murray played for a Sault St. Marie team in the Ontario Hockey League that had Keefe as coach and current Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas as GM from 2012-14. He has two seasons remaining on a four-year, $25 million contract ($6.25 million average annual value) he signed with Ottawa on Oct. 9, 2020. The Senators retain 25 percent of Murray’s salary.
“I know him well from my time spent with him. I can see how he’s grown and how he takes care of himself and how he goes about his business with incredible confidence in himself, despite what might have happened here in recent years,” Keefe said.
“His success that he’s had in Pittsburgh, winning the Stanley Cup and winning the big game, be it a Game 7 or be it clinching a Stanley Cup and getting it done, that gives him incredible confidence.”
Samsonov was inconsistent with the Washington Capitals last season, 23-12-5 with a 3.02 GAA, .896 save percentage and three shutouts in 44 games (39 starts), sharing time with Vitek Vanecek. He was 1-3 with a 2.97 GAA and .912 save percentage in the playoffs when the Capitals lost to the Florida Panthers in six games in the Eastern Conference First Round. He wasn’t given a qualifying offer and signed a one-year, $1.8-million contract with Toronto on July 13, two days after the Murray trade.
“He’s an incredible talent that we think has got more to give in terms of how he competes on a daily basis, and how he can be pushed and challenged,” Keefe said.
The two goalies arrived in Toronto weeks ago for workouts and already have forged a friendship. Samsonov, who wore No. 30 with the Capitals like Murray did with the Penguins and Senators, unselfishly allowed his new partner to keep the number and switched his to 35.
“I think the relationship between goalie partners is a pivotal one,” Murray said. “I think it’s one where you push each other and compete with each other and have each other’s backs as well.
“The important thing is to take one day at a time.”
Samsonov made the most of his first opportunity. Murray will attempt to do the same with his.
Photo courtesy: @MapleLeafs
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