Samsonov's swagger on display as Leafs outlast Sabres in OT

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Thank goodness for Ilya Samsonov.

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In a game devoid of anything approaching excitement, the Maple Leafs goaltender was in fine leather-flashing form on Wednesday night at Scotiabank Arena.

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Auston Matthews’ 54th goal gave the Leafs a 2-1 victory against the Buffalo Sabres in overtime, though a couple of Samsonov saves were required to ensure that Toronto emerged with two points.

Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe spoke in the morning of Samsonov’s renewed confidence and swagger following the netminder’s struggles earlier in the season.

A stop on a re-directed Sabres point shot late in the third period and a 10-bell glove save on Tage Thompson in the extra period were further evidence of Samsonov’s comfort level.

There’s talk that the Leafs would prefer that Joseph Woll becomes the team’s No. 1 goalie and leads the club into the playoffs, but that’s a bit of a silly notion. It shouldn’t matter which goalie is that guy, and with the way Samsonov has been playing, he’s continuing to restore the good feelings with his game that had dissipated.

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In his past 13 starts, Samsonov is 11-2-0 with a .911 save percentage.

He had to be mentally sharp on Wednesday, as the Sabres didn’t register their first shot until the game was nearly 15 minutes old.

“Overtime save, saves late in the last minute of regulation,” Keefe said. “A tough game — not a lot of offence, and not a lot of pucks coming to him. It’s a tough game mentally to stay in and stay engaged. He was excellent.”

Samsonov, who finished with 24 saves, brushed aside post-game talk of his confidence.

“Tomorrow is a new day,” Samsonov said. “I come to the rink, enjoy seeing my teammates and do the work on the ice. This is just what I think right now.”

How about the OT save on Thompson?

“I think I’m just doing my work,” Samsonov said.

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Woll is in line to get the start in Boston against the Bruins on Thursday as the Leafs try to avenge a 4-1 loss to the Bruins in Toronto on Monday.

The Leafs are 5-3-0 in the second game of back-to-back sets this season, but are 0-3-3 in their past six games versus Boston.

PATIENCE IS KEY

Would the Leafs have preferred to run up the score against Buffalo, considering the Sabres beat them 9-3 in western New York on Dec. 21?

You bet. The alternative, though, wasn’t terrible.

Sure, there was little entertainment value in the game, but that wasn’t weighing on the Leafs afterward. Energy on both sides was lacking, but the Leafs didn’t get lazy either.

“These are games that we’re comfortable in, honestly,” Matthews said. “We’ve been in situations like that before, in tight games. Everybody talks about the way we are able to score, but (there is) pride that we try to take in tight games like this, not a whole lot offence going on either side and just staying patient, staying within ourselves and playing to our strengths and not overdoing anything.

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“Sometimes it takes extra time, but coming out of here with two points feels good.”

Matthews was set up by Mitch Marner for the deciding goal at 4:20 of overtime. It was Matthews’ second goal in six games and the 61st game-winner of his career.

In NHL history, only Connor McDavid (65 goals) and Jaromir Jagr (62 goals) had more game-winners before the age of 27.

After there were no scoring chances in the first period, William Nylander scored at 2:29 of the second to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead.

Linemates Tyler Bertuzzi, who found Nylander in the slot, and Max Domi had a strong forecheck that resulted in the goal.

Buffalo tied the game at 6:31 when Victor Olofsson burst down the wing and fooled Samsonov high on the glove side. It helped the Sabres forward that Morgan Rielly didn’t close the gap anywhere near quick enough to try to thwart the chance.

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The Leafs didn’t score on their only power play, putting them at 0-for-10 in their past five games. It’s the first time this season the Leafs have gone five games without scoring a power-play goal.

The victory brought an end to the Leafs’ five-game home stand, during which they went 3-2-0.

DEADLINE NEARS

On the trade front, Leafs general manager Brad Treliving has little, if any at all, interest in dealing prospects Easton Cowan or Fraser Minten, never mind 21-year-old winger Matthew Knies, before the NHL trade deadline hits on Friday at 3 p.m.

We wouldn’t trade any of them either. Cowan on Wednesday night extended his Ontario Hockey League point streak to 30 games when he scored two goals for the London Knights against the Guelph Storm. That kind of potential isn’t always easy to come by, and the Leafs have been encouraged by Cowan’s overall development.

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If Treliving is serious about making the Leafs better than they are now, he’s going to have to part with something of substance (just not Knies, Cowan or Minten). Some will say that can be a player such as Nick Robertson, but Treliving would probably have to give up a lot more to make a true impact on the roster.

Robertson was not in the Marlies lineup on Wednesday for a school-day game against Belleville. Read into that what you will, but there’s little for Robertson to prove in the American Hockey League, and work with the organization’s development staff might be what’s best for him. Having said that, if Treliving does use Robertson in a trade, he couldn’t take the chance that the youngster gets hurt in an AHL game that’s just another one on the schedule.

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If we were to bet, we would put money on Treliving making a trade of some sort before the deadline. It’s likely going to be the kind of deal that Treliving made last week in getting depth defenceman Ilya Lyubushkin from the Anaheim Ducks. Or, perhaps, a bottom-six forward.

Working against the chance of a big Leafs trade is the team’s lack of second-round picks (none in the next three years), an unwillingness to part with the 2024 first-rounder unless it’s for a player with term (as it should be) and a desire to keep the kids who will be Leafs one day.

While it’s nice to say that Treliving should be going all in trade-wise, it’s a tall order when the assets to use are scarce.

After a slew of trades in the NHL on Wednesday, some players who remain on the market that could help the Leafs (whether Toronto has interest) include defencemen Matt Dumba and David Savard, and forwards Nic Dowd and Jack Roslovic.

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Treliving knows he already has the players who will lead the Leafs to any level of playoff success that the team might reach.

GREGOR BACK IN

Winger Noah Gregor returned to the Leafs lineup after he was a healthy scratch for six consecutive games and seven of the past eight.

“It’s never fun coming out of the lineup, but I’ve been there before,” Gregor said. “I know how to get my mind back. Just work hard, and when I get the chance, come back and be good.

“In general, I’m a pretty positive person and a pretty confident person in my own abilities. I believe in myself and I know I can be a helpful part of this team.”

With Gregor in, Pontus Holmberg was scratched.

Keefe said in the morning that illness had popped up again in the dressing room, and some game-time decisions were probable.

That’s how it turned out, as defenceman Jake McCabe was scratched because of illness. William Lagesson took McCabe’s place on a pairing with Simon Benoit. Keefe said the team was hopeful that McCabe could play in Boston.

Centre David Kampf, who missed practice on Tuesday because he was sick, was at his usual spot on the fourth line.

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