LEAF NOTES: Trouble in Toronto's net makes Marlie star more marketable

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More eyes than usual will be on the farm team Marlies Tuesday in a Boxing Day matinee at Scotiabank Arena against the Belleville Senators.

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It’s expected Toronto starts Swede Dennis Hildeby, who on Saturday ranked second among AHL rookie goalies with a .921 save percentage. It would be his first game in a big-league milieu amid concerns about Ilya Samsonov’s fragile frame of mind as the lone backup for Martin Jones while Joseph Woll continues a slow recovery from a high ankle sprain.

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Samsonov will have to sort himself by the end of the week, likely to be called upon when the Leafs play three in four nights. The NHL holiday roster freeze ends late Wednesday night.

Hildeby gave up four goals on 28 shots Friday in Belleville, in a 4-3 loss that also halted winger Alex Steeves’ Marlies’ record points streak at 16 games. There are obvious risks with moving him along too quickly, but the more impressive his numbers, the more interest he generates.

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Perhaps some Yuletide family time will help Samsonov. Earlier this week he expressed excitement that his parents are coming from Russia to visit and see their grandchild.

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HONKY AND HOCKEY

It wouldn’t be right at this time of year not to recognize the late Johnny Bower’s novelty record, Honky the Christmas Goose.

Recorded in December 1965 for charity, it was a first for a Leaf, the all-star goalie joined by ‘The Rinky Dinks’, a kids’ choir including his son John. It sold around 40,000 copies at its height and reached the 29th spot on the CHUM radio hit list, dislodging Day Tripper by The Beatles. The gregarious Bower often portrayed Santa Claus at the Leafs Christmas party well into the 1990s.

“Our family still often plays that record,” John Jr. told us. “I still have a couple of copies. I tell my grandchildren ‘that was me’, but they say ‘Great Poppa, you couldn’t sing then and you can’t sing now.’”

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CHRISTMAS ONCE A WORKDAY

Long before the players association had today’s clout, teams had to play Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. On games stagged on the 25th, the Leafs had a record of 16-13-4 before it became a day off in 1972.

As the Leafs team bus made its way through the near-deserted streets of South Side Chicago on Christmas Day 1968, there was very little holiday mirth, having lost the last game in Detroit and separated from family.

Those aboard recall a booming voice at the back breaking the silence with Christmas carols. Rookie Pat Quinn just couldn’t stop himself.

“Tim Horton, Dave Keon; the veterans are all staring at me,” the late Quinn recalled in a 1998 interview as Leafs coach. “That kind of thing just wasn’t done. But by the end, a few of them were singing along with me.”

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The Leafs beat the Blackhawks 4-3.

LOOSE LEAFS

The NHL Senators’ search for a full-time replacement for fired coach D.J. Smith could eventually lead them to Marlies’ John Gruden. It’s Gruden’s first year in Toronto, but he has ties to Ottawa’s respective owner and president, Michael Andlauer and Steve Staios, through the 2016-18 AHL Hamilton Bulldogs … Winger Calle Jarnkrok, the latest Leaf flu bug victim, was able to play Saturday after being too ill to make Friday’s practice … Forward Kieffer Bellows is up to 10 goals with the Marlies with eight assists in 18 games. The 19th overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft by the Islanders last reached double figures in goals with New York’s Bridgeport farm team in 2019-20. He’s on an AHL PTO.

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