Ilya Samsonov has the will, but no way should Joseph Woll come down as the starting netminder for the Maple Leafs when they return home this week.
The struggling Samsonov needed to be near-perfect in Nashville on Saturday — despite it being the club’s final stop on a five-game road trip and down to five defencemen — but he absorbed a 3-2 overtime loss.
His 22 saves included some difficult ones through traffic, but awkward positioning cost him on Ryan O’Reilly’s opening goal, coming less than two minutes after the Leafs took a 1-0 lead.
O’Reilly actually half-fanned on his tricky shot, which a contrite Samsonov said he might still have stopped had he gone into butterfly stance.
O’Reilly’s second goal, also on the power play, was a rather deft tip-in, though defenceman Mark Giordano was quick to blame himself for poor coverage against his former teammate.
Roman Josi beat Samsonov with a hard, point-blank shot in the extra period which the Preds dominated.
Coach Sheldon Keefe had watched Woll rescue the game in Tampa Bay a week earlier after Samsonov gave up three goals on four shots, that after some iffy goals by the Panthers in a trip-opening loss. The rookie Woll then dazzled in Washington — the start Samsonov coveted against his old team — before getting major credit for the win in Dallas.
With 95 saves on 97 shots in his three appearances on the trip, there’s no reason to stall Woll’s momentum and not let him hear some crowd love in what would be a rare home start Tuesday against Los Angeles. Woll, meanwhile, is eyeing who gets Thursday’s assignment in Boston, where he attended college.
Samsonov’s usual exuberance in the dressing room and with the media has been tempered by an .841 save percentage so far this month, but Keefe insisted the Russian “should feel good,” about holding the Leafs in the Nashville game.
“He looked solid,” Keefe said. “There were a few good chances where he looked like the Sammy of last season. He did his job, we just didn’t score enough for him (on 35 shots against Juuse Saros).”
Samsonov called the result “a step forward for me, a little bit better movement. I saw the puck really well. The first period was hard, the second and third, I feel my game.”
Samsonov has also gone back to wearing his old mask, after putting lots of effort into a design that paid homage to Curtis Joseph’s Leafs crease heroics 20 years ago. He was either uncomfortable with it, or superstitious.
“No more Cujo, that’s it,” said Samsonov.
DEPLETED D NEEDS HELP
First, the Leafs were forced into a slimmed-down roster because of their perilous salary cap situation.
Now they’ve endured the past two games in large part with only five defencemen.
Not the deepest team on defence in the NHL to start, they’ll likely need another callup this week after Timothy Liljegren hurt his shoulder halfway through Saturday’s game.
Simon Benoit, caught in a cap vice between the Leafs and Marlies that prevented him from playing for either, finally got into a game when the Marlies beat Belleville 4-3 in a Saturday shootout.
The free-agent signing from Anaheim could join Saturday callup William Lagesson — who replaced Jake McCabe. But that will depend on Liljegren’s and McCabe’s re-assessment the next couple of days. The Leafs had Sunday off.
Keefe’s first concern was surviving Nashville with a depleted blueline.
“You know fatigue will become a factor at the end of a long trip and, when you lose another defenceman, that challenge is enhanced,” he said.
He has looked to new assistant coach Mike Van Ryn to find a workable solution with battlefield promotions in both matches.
“You have to manage guys’ minutes, constantly changing the pairs up,” said Keefe, who leaned on Morgan Rielly for almost 28 minutes versus the Preds and 40-year-old Giordano for more than 20. “Yet, it’s also somewhat easy, next man up and you don’t over-think it.
“Obviously, Lagesson being in (his first Leafs game) is an additional challenge. He’s still getting up to speed and we weren’t using him a lot (Saturday) before that. He did an admirable job.”
PENALTY -KILL NO THRILL
It has been some time since a miner’s lamp was needed to locate the Leafs’ penalty-killing so far beneath the surface.
The Predators’ two power-play goals sunk the Leafs into a tie with Edmonton for 24th in the NHL at 74.1%, down from 12th at the end of last season. They’ve given up seven goals in 27 times short.
“It’s a work in progress,” Keefe said of its early-season kinks. “Gio certainly has to get (O’Reilly’s) stick for us, but things happened before that which allowed the puck to get into that space.
“In a lot of ways, we’re trying to manufacture penalty-killers here (introducing Auston Matthews and Matthew Knies to the mix, each adding to Mitch Marner’s value as both a checker and short-handed offensive threat).”
Knies was on for both Preds power-play goals, as was Giordano.
“We’re giving guys opportunities they haven’t had before, whether it’s Knies who is new to the league or guys who haven’t killed a lot,” Keefe added. “It’s going to take some time and the only way to get through it is to have some struggles like this. It’s part of the process.”
What a difference for Keefe coming home from this long road trip to a year ago in late October, when four straight losses in Vegas and California had put his team’s record at 4-4-2 and some calling for his job. But from there, the Leafs finished 46-17-9 and won their opening playoff round. This season’s edition was a win away on this just-concluded 3-1-1 trip from it being the club’s best five-game swing since 2007 … Among other concerns for Keefe and his staff this coming week is getting newcomers Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi to cash more chances. The new front-line forwards have combined for two goals, both by Bertuzzi, and five assists, four by Domi. The fourth line, now principally Noah Gregor, Ryan Reaves and Pontus Holmberg, have come close, too, but only Gregor has a goal … Marner’s assist Saturday moved him past Teeder Kennedy into ninth on the club’s career points list with 561. Eight of Toronto’s top 10, other than Marner and Ron Ellis, are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.