Buckle up, Leafs Nation.
The Maple Leafs might not look at it the same way, not that the club would acknowledge as much if it did, but the angst on the outside is real as another start for goaltender Ilya Samsonov has been confirmed.
Coach Sheldon Keefe said after practice on Thursday at the Ford Performance Centre that Samsonov will be in goal on Friday night in Columbus against the Blue Jackets, the first game in a back-to-back set that concludes on Saturday in Toronto versus the Carolina Hurricanes.
Samsonov’s struggles in 2023-24 are known near and far in the National Hockey League, though he hit a low last week in Buffalo when he allowed five goals on 19 shots before he was pulled in the Leafs’ eventual 9-3 loss, their worst in years.
Keefe and his staff are mindful of the work Samsonov has been putting in during the days since the debacle against the Sabres, sandwiched around the three-day Christmas break.
As has become his habit, Samsonov was on the ice early on Thursday, working with development staff and goalie coach Curtis Sanford before the rest of the Leafs made an appearance.
The hope for Keefe, and that’s all it can be right now when Samsonov is involved, is that there was some value for the netminder in getting the extra work following the break.
“In terms of how that sets up, I think it’s great,” Keefe said. “It’s a chance to get away from the game for a bit and also come back and have opportunity to get back up to speed and see the puck.
“Any time you take a break, those tend to be difficult on the goalies, I’ve found through experience, because they’re so used to their routines and they’re so used to seeing the pucks and seeing releases.
“When you break that, it’s harder to get the timing back. So to have Sammy (get) additional time, I think only benefits him, not just because of his own circumstances, but coming off the break.”
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The Leafs are likely to have a boost on the blue line in Columbus as defenceman Mark Giordano is in line to return after missing the past 12 games with a broken thumb. Hurt on Nov. 28 against the Florida Panthers, Giordano was a full participant in practice on a pairing with Timothy Liljegren and indicated afterward that he was ready to play again.
As for the Leafs as a whole, the concern should go beyond whether Samsonov, who will put an .871 save percentage on the line on Friday, still can be an effective goaltender in the NHL.
We’ve talked a lot about what kind of team the Leafs are, what their identity is, how they might play from one game to the next.
What we can say after 32 games is that Toronto continues to be an inconsistent bunch, one that can’t put together a long string of good hockey. Since the trip to Sweden, where the Leafs beat Detroit and Minnesota, the team’s record is 7-4-4 in 15 games. At a glance, it’s OK, but it’s still eight times the Leafs have gone home disappointed with the result. Since beating Nashville 4-0 on Dec. 9, a performance that was the Leafs’ most complete of the season, Toronto is 3-3-2. Stanley Cup-contending stuff, it’s not.
And yes, the Leafs are in third place in the Atlantic Division, but by no means are they in a comfortable spot.
“That’s always the goal, is to find that consistency,” Keefe said. “But it remains a challenge for us. There’s consistency in results and there is consistency in process and performance.
“There’s lots of things in the (4-2 loss to Ottawa) that I’d like us to do a lot better, yet we probably could have scored five or six quite easily and on a different night, we very well might have.
“That’s the results part of it. But the process piece, as we go through it in great detail, there’s lots of things both offensively and defensively with or without the puck that I’d like to see us get better at. As we get healthier on defence, perhaps that really helps us, but it’s not just a defence thing for me. It’s the whole group and working together as a group of five.”
Behind that group on Friday against the Blue Jackets, a team ahead of only the Senators in the Eastern Conference, will be Samsonov. He was in goal for the shutout against Nashville, but since has allowed 15 goals in three starts.
Martin Jones has been admirable for the Leafs. But Joseph Woll is not close to returning from a high ankle sprain, and while Dennis Hildeby has been good with the Toronto Marlies, he’s not a viable option.
On Friday night, buckle up indeed.