Father-to-be Samsonov on edge as he preps for Islanders
TSN SportsCentre Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at Ford Performance Centre on Monday ahead of Tuesday’s road game against the New York Islanders.
Ilya Samsonov is due to become a dad any day now, but the goalie is keeping his focus on the task at hand as the Leafs depart on a week-long trip.
"This little bit hard," the 25-year-old admits with a smile. "But you need to stay focused on the game, especially for tomorrow. I live day by day right now and we'll see what's going on. I just want to focus for the game and my wife support me, too. You know, she's tried to talk to me a lot about, like, no stress, just to play hockey and we will figure out [everything] here because everybody helps us here. We're so excited."
When is the baby boy due?
"Just God knows this," Samsonov said with a laugh. "I'm not doctor. I don't know. I think in next few days."
Samsonov is scheduled to start against the New York Islanders on Tuesday. He stopped 31 of 33 shots to best countryman Ilya Sorokin on Jan. 23 in the last meeting between the two teams.
"As we can all imagine, he's on edge a little bit just with making sure things are taken care of here," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "He'll be a first-time dad."
"Nervous and excited, too," Samsonov said. "This is new experience for me. You never know, but what I know is my life will be changed. Maybe less sleep a little bit, yeah, a couple extra time up at night."
The Leafs allowed Samsonov to remain home after Friday's win over the Carolina Hurricanes instead of travelling to Ottawa where Matt Murray started against the Senators on Saturday. Joseph Woll was called up from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies to dress as the back-up goalie and he remains with the team.
"I have a new opportunity in my life," Samsonov said. "I want to say thank you for whole organization to get a little extra time for me to stay with my wife."
Samsonov specifically thanked Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas for being so understanding.
The road trip this week includes stops in Sunrise, Fla., on Thursday, Raleigh, N.C., on Saturday and Nashville on Sunday.
"It presents some challenges for sure," said Keefe of Samsonov's situation. "We'll take it a day at a time. He will travel with us and be prepared to play tomorrow."
Samsonov has emerged as Toronto's most reliable option in net this season with a .917 save percentage. He established a new career high by winning a 24th game on Friday.
Samsonov isn't 100 per cent healthy right now, which is another reason why the Leafs kept him at home on Saturday.
"I feel good," Samsonov stressed after being a full participant in practice. "It's good work today. Good goalie session and good practice with the guys. I feel power. I got little bit injury. Nothing crazy, but sometimes I feel this one."
Samsonov was slow to get up after one shot in Monday's practice, but he stayed in the net.
"Thank you again these guys, Sheldon and Kyle, get some extra time for me for my injury, too," Samsonov said. "It's not big injury, but it's important [to be careful] before playoffs."
Samsonov indicated he's been dealing with the issue for a while, but it's not connected to the knee injury that forced him to miss time earlier this season.
For just the second time this season, William Nylander has gone three straight games without registering a point. The winger has actually gone four straight games without a point in 5-on-5 play and his ice time declined in each outing last week.
"I just find when the the puck's hitting his stick, his feet aren't moving to the same degree," Keefe said. "He's not attacking. There's a lot more perimeter, a lot more just sort of getting rid of the puck. I want him to hang onto it. I want him to challenge. I want him to be on the attack. I want to see lots of pace from him. That's when he's at his best. So, that's really it. Just get back to doing that. It's been too long now since we've seen that consistently from him, but as we've seen through most of the season it's certainly there."
Keefe is trying to get Nylander going by giving him new linemates. The 26-year-old Swede played with the speedy Sam Lafferty and the recently recalled Bobby McMann on Saturday in Ottawa and that trio remained intact at Monday's practice.
"He's not skating to the same degree he was earlier in the season when he was a dominant player for us," Keefe said. "We need to get him back going that way so playing him more with guys who can skate and move their feet."
Keefe offered a similar critique the last time Nylander's play dipped in early January. Back then the coach actually moved Nylander to the centre position in an effort to get him moving more.
In past seasons, consistency proved elusive for Nylander, but this year he has been a force most of the way. He leads the Leafs with 35 goals, but has scored just twice in the last 10 games.
Nylander was not available for an interview on Monday despite being requested.
John Tavares only produced two secondary assists in 5-on-5 play during four games last week. He skated with the red hot Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting on Saturday. That line also remained together on Monday.
"John and Will certainly haven't played with the same results that they've had through most of the season here," Keefe said. "They've cooled off a fair bit and just wanting to help them get themselves going whether that's Mitch going with John or Will just on his own ... he can be the guy who can really drives things."
Auston Matthews remains on a line with Alex Kerfoot and Calle Jarnkrok.
"Outside of some good nights from Marner and Matthews and them going, I don't think we've had a lot," Keefe acknowledged.
Matthews and Jarnkrok linked up for last Wednesday's game against the Colorado Avalanche and generated some instant chemistry. In conversation with reporters in Ottawa, Keefe revealed that Matthews "felt strongly" about continuing with Jarnkrok.
"He's a great player," Matthews raved after setting up a pair of Jarnkrok goals against the Senators. "I mean, he's just so sneaky good at so many things and so smart. He gets into great spots all over the ice, not just in the offensive zone, and just a real easy guy to play with. His release is one of the prettiest releases I've seen in a long time and it's a lot of fun watching him get the puck off."
That's high praise from the two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner. At age 31 and in his 10th NHL season, Jarnkrok has now established a new career high with 17 goals. On a team full of high-end talent, the soft-spoken Swede boasts an underrated weapon.
"It's really incredible," said Kerfoot. "It doesn't get the attention that maybe some of the best shooters in the game get, but he's able to get it off and when he gets it off clean it usually goes in the back of the net. It doesn't look like he's putting a ton of effort into his shot, but it just comes off his stick real clean and he puts it in his spot a lot of the time. When he gets chances he usually puts it in the back of the net."
Kerfoot emerged as the unlikely hero in Saturday's nine-round shootout.
"I went in the shootout once last year and did the same move," Kerfoot noted. "I had a couple penalty shots earlier this year that didn't go so well so, in the back of my mind, I was thinking if I went I was just going to go back to that move. I had success with it and didn't have success with anything else. I tried to come in from that side, open him up a little bit, pretend like I was going low blocker and hope his five hole opened up."
Kerfoot ended a seven-round shootout in Washington last season the same way.
"It's just when something works you go back to it, I guess," he said. "It's difficult for the goalie when you get him moving laterally a little bit and you come in with a little bit of speed. They can read low blocker and then it opens up. It's not the nicest move in the world. Auston and Willy and Mitchy and those guys make goalies look a little bit worse."
Kerfoot can't be picky at this point. He hasn't scored a goal in 24 games dating back to Jan. 17. The pending unrestricted free agent only has seven goals this season.
So, maybe the shootout success can be a springboard?
"Hopefully," Kerfoot said with a grin. "It'd be nice. It's nice to see one hit the back of the net. I haven't seen one hit the back of the net in a while so hopefully that will be a sign of things to come."
Kerfoot has had 34 straight shots stopped in the run of play. His shooting percentage has cratered to 6.4, which is down from his career average of 12.2.
"It can only help in terms of confidence and swagger," said Keefe. "It's a big goal at a very important time. You come through like that for your team, it can only help you feel good. The guys made sure he knew how happy they were for him."
Teammates have constantly praised Kerfoot for the subtle contributions he makes. And on Saturday they relished the chance to mob the 28-year-old following his star turn in the shootout.
"That just goes to show what type of teammates they are," Kerfoot said. "Yeah, it meant a lot. We're a tight-knit group in here."
Noel Acciari left Friday's game following a collision with Hurricanes winger Jesse Puljujarvi. He was held out of Saturday's game as a precaution.
"I just didn't feel right, but the training staff, doctors, the coaching staff, and everyone was good about it and making sure," Acciari said. "Taking those extra couple days definitely helped."
The gritty forward was back on the ice at Monday's practice and skating on his regular line with Zach Aston-Reese and David Kampf.
"Feel good," the 31-year-old said. "I'm glad to be back out there with the guys."
On Friday night, Keefe expressed frustration that no penalty was called on Puljujarvi.
"I watched it a couple times," Acciari said of the play. "He was trying to hold the line and I was trying to backcheck. He caught me off-guard when he put his hands up. That's all. It is what it is ... He was bracing more than anything, which makes it seem like he saw it coming, but it is what it is. It's a hockey play. I just got to get past it. It wasn't anything major so I'm ready to get back out there."
"All signs point to him being available tomorrow," Keefe said.
Noel Acciari went down the tunnel and into the locker room after this collision with Puljujarvi at the blue line#LeafsForever | #LetsGoCanes pic.twitter.com/FANIlANuaD— Hockey Daily 365 l NHL Highlights (@HockeyDaily365) March 17, 2023
Aston-Reese scored twice on Friday with the Leafs wearing their St. Pat's sweaters.
"It's exciting," he said. "I definitely needed it. I've been struggling in the points department so it's nice to get on the board. I'm really liking these green jerseys. I'm starting to think they’re lucky for me."
The goals snapped a 14-game drought for Aston-Reese, who had not bulged the twine since Jan. 29.
Aston-Reese is now up to seven goals on the season with the last six coming when TSN broadcasts the game. Tuesday's tilt in New York will be on TSN.
Toronto's top power-play unit assembled on the ice before Monday's practice for some extra work with assistant coach Spencer Carbery. Erik Gustafsson joined the unit and split quarterback reps with Morgan Rielly.
Will Gustafsson get a look with that unit down the stretch?
"We'll see," said Keefe. "It's important to have an understudy there that's working with the second group and making sure you have somebody ready. In Washington he was taking on a ton of that responsibility and excelling in that role so we're mindful of that and want to make sure he's up to speed in terms of what the other guys are doing."
Once the main practice started, Rielly worked exclusively with the top unit while Gustafsson was with the second group.
Toronto's power play is second overall this season (25.9 per cent).
Erik Gustafsson working with the top power play unit— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) March 20, 2023
Splitting QB time with Morgan Rielly, who took the first rep @TSN_Edge pic.twitter.com/hV9hOt6SB0
T.J. Brodie missed practice after blocking a shot on Saturday. The defenceman is considered day-to-day, per Keefe.
Lines at Monday's practice:
Kerfoot - Matthews - Jarnkrok
Bunting - Tavares - Marner
McMann - Lafferty - Nylander
Aston-Reese - Kampf - Acciari
Rielly - Gustafsson
Giordano - Holl
McCabe - Liljegren
Timmins - Schenn
Special teams work at Monday's practice:
PP1 - Rielly, Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares
PP2 - Gustafsson, Kerfoot, Jarnkrok, Lafferty, Bunting
5-on-3 - Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander, Bunting