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Friends Samsonov and Kuznetsov reunite on the comeback trail

Evgeny Kuznetsov Ilya Samsonov Washington Capitals Evgeny Kuznetsov Ilya Samsonov - Getty Images

The Maple Leafs (optional) and Carolina Hurricanes skated at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday. 


Leafs goalie Ilya Samsonov and Hurricanes centre Evgeny Kuznetsov have leaned on each other as they've navigated trying times this season. 

"I talk with him every day probably," said Samsonov. "Maybe not every day but four, five times a week. We talk to each other to [offer] support. It doesn't matter what's going on in life."

The pair of Russians struck up a close bond while playing three seasons together in Washington. They spent the Christmas break and caught up for dinner on Friday night ahead of their fourth career NHL showdown. 

Samsonov is in a groove having won 13 of 15 starts since Jan. 21. 

"You guys been so hard on players, in general, here over the time," Kuznetsov. "I'm so happy that he doesn't speak English well so he doesn't understand everything and that's huge for him."

Samsonov struggled in the spotlight early this season. His confidence plummeted and he ended up clearing waivers on Jan. 1.  

"There's a lot of talk about hockey and team in general, right, that's life here, more than life for me probably," said Kuznetsov. "I'm so happy that he doesn't watch that all the time. He doesn't read everything, which is pretty hard to do sometimes."

Samsonov backstopped the Leafs to the franchise's first playoff series win in 19 years last year, but earned just a one-year deal following an arbitration hearing in the summer. 

"I haven't seen him at the best," Kuznetsov said, "because the best games are ahead of him. I believe his best games [are] ahead of him and I'm pretty sure the people will see his best version. If he can get confident inside of that blue thing [crease] … if he can get comfortable there you guys could have a good goalie."

A first round pick in 2015, Samsonov didn't live up to his potential in Washington and the Capitals declined to extend him a qualifying offer when he was a restricted free agent in the summer of 2022. 

Samsonov, who turned 27 in February, is 18-5-6 this season. 

"He has to have the higher goals," Kuznetsov said. "He's not a kid anymore, so you can put pressure on him a little more right now. He has to learn. I'm just hoping he can isolate himself from all the outside talk and just play hockey."


ContentId(1.2091126): Kuznetsov says Samsonov's poor English helps him handle heat in Toronto


Kuznetsov cleared waivers himself after recently emerging from the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program. The Capitals traded him to the Hurricanes before the deadline on March 8. He has played four games with Carolina. 

"I'm happy to see he's back," Samsonov said. "Nice to see him in a Carolina jersey too, you know, and new opportunity."

The 31-year-old entered the Player Assistance Program in early February. 

"He knows his problem," Samsonov said. "He's old guy. He understands."

"I'm staying off social media over 61 days," Kuznetsov said. "I have no idea what's outside of this locker room. I have no idea what the trades are like and who's playing where and it's kind of nice to live on the other side."

What keeps him going amid adversity? 

"Paycheque," he quipped. 

Kuznetsov laughed, paused, and offered some insight into what he's been going through. 

"When you play games every day you don't realize how big the impact on your life that hockey makes," he said. "And then when you step away a little bit you get anxious, right, you kind of go like, 'Ah.' It's a privilege to be able to step up and look from the side and see what's your real needs in life and what you actually wanted to do for a living, right. I know we get paid a lot of money and stuff like that, but this is life. This is what we do. We travel. We shower with the boys. We do all this stuff, which sounds weird, but you miss that part a lot, so that's what motivated me to come back every day and work hard."

Kuznetsov scored during Thursday's win over the Florida Panthers – his first goal since Jan. 3 – and did his trademark bird-flapping celebration. Teammates mimicked it as part of the team's storm surge celebration after the game. 

"I'm not trying to make people angry or something like that," Kuznetsov stressed. "It's just for kids and people that have been asking, and I don't really score a lot of goals so you're not going to see that 55 or 60 times a year."

In the dressing room after Thursday's game, head coach Rod Brind'Amour admitted the bird celebration used to bother him. 

"I'm pretty sure it bothers a lot of people," Kuznetsov said with a laugh.  

Kuznetsov is still getting up to speed with the Hurricanes. He says he spent 50 days off the ice. Brind'Amour acknowledged that conditioning and comfort with the system are issues. 

For now, Kuznetsov is running on adrenaline. 

"A lot of emotions right now into the game," he said.  

And there will be even more emotion on Saturday as he faces his good friend. 

"I try to give him no chance for the bird," Samsonov said with a laugh. "Nice opportunity for us, what time you play against your friends. He wants to score on me, I want to make some saves and it will be nice."

Samsonov sent Kuznetsov a congratulatory message after seeing his goal on Thursday night. 

"It's always amazing to play against him," said Kuznetsov. "I wish him all the best and stay healthy and perform, but not tonight, which makes sense."   

Samsonov has stopped all four shots Kuznetsov has sent his way during their previous NHL meetings. 


ContentId(1.2091128): Kuznetsov didn't realize how much he loved hockey life until it was gone


Samsonov departed the Leafs optional skate in pain after taking a shot off his leg. 

"Sammy's fine," smiling coach Sheldon Keefe declared before taking questions at his media session. "He'll play tonight. Leave me alone."

The coach, who has faced a series of injury-related queries this week, confirmed it was just a stinger for his starter.  

Saturday will be the third straight start for Samsonov. 

"It's just a reflection of the whole picture," said Keefe. "He's been going really well, so that's really it."

Joseph Woll hasn't played since giving up four goals during a loss in Boston on March 7. 


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Kuznetsov is playing on Carolina's second line with fellow trade pickup Jake Guentzel

"In our organization normally we do it in the summer, we make our big moves, and I think I prefer that just because you don't have this massive change with 20 games to go in your season," said Brind'Amour. "But you also know when you're adding the quality players you are it should give you a bump at some point here. The guys are all excited about it and it's up to me now to fit it in right, but we definitely improved our team." 

The Hurricanes have won three of four games since the deadline. Guentzel played in the last two. 

"They just continue to be a great team that was very deep and have now become deeper and more dangerous," said Keefe. "They've always had good forwards, but their defence and how they defend as a group has always been their identity and now they've added more punch offensively on forward, which really completes their team. So, I'm sure confidence is real high over there."

The Hurricanes have made the playoffs in all five seasons since Brind'Amour took over behind the bench and are well on their way to a sixth postseason berth. 

"They've been as consistent a team as you find," Keefe said. "You know exactly what you're in for when you play against Carolina ... Every year and every game you see consistency from their team."

Keefe continues to search for consistency with his group this season, but Brind'Amour is impressed with what his counterpart has built in Toronto. 

"It's easy to sit back and say, 'Well, they got all these great players, it's easy to coach,'" Brind'Amour said. "It's not that easy. It's a luxury when you have those guys, but it's 20 guys that win you games. What impresses me watching them is they have a good system and he gets those guys to play it and that's part of the reason why they're so successful. Yeah, they got great talent, but talent is not going to win you it all, you have to have a system in place and you need 20 guys and he's done a good job of that."


The Hurricanes beat the Leafs 3-2 on Dec. 30 in the only previous meeting between the teams this season. Carolina scored two power-play goals that night and sit fifth overall in power-play percentage. 

The Leafs, meanwhile, are 23rd in penalty-kill percentage and currently playing without Mitch Marner (high-ankle sprain) and Calle Jarnkrok (hand). They are also looking to incorporate newcomers Connor DewarJoel Edmundson and Ilya Lyubushkin into their system. 

"Trying to bring all of that together has been a challenge that has become an even greater challenge, because we've lost two of our most prominent and reliable penalty killers," said Keefe. 


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With Jarnkrok joining Marner on the sidelines, the Leafs have overhauled their lineup. Pontus Holmberg will play on the top line beside Auston Matthews

"I like that," the 24-year-old Swede said. "It's pretty easy to play with him."

But it didn't go smoothly when Holmberg got a look beside Matthews and Marner for a handful of games in January.  

"I need to play better than last time I was there," Holmberg acknowledged. "You have to play good hockey there so I hope so tonight. I have more confidence right now so hopefully that can help me." 

Holmberg picked up a goal early in Thursday's win in Philadelphia and added an assist on Matthews' third period marker. 

"He made some plays and held onto pucks and fought for the middle of the ice," said Keefe. "The vibe is good with those guys so you want to stay with it."


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The rise of left winger Bobby McMann continues. The undrafted 27-year-old, who signed a two-year extension on Wednesday, is moving up to the second line beside William Nylander and Max Domi

"For me, it's sticking with the game that I have and the game I usually play," McMann stressed, "and that's being hard on the forecheck and trying to get pucks back as best as I can."

Nylander mentioned on Friday that McMann's goal-scoring ability stands out. What does McMann notice about Nylander? 

"His ability to play with the puck, ability to make plays and see different plays and make passes," he said. "So, I'll just get my stick on the ice and who knows what's going to happen."

With 10 tallies in 41 games, McMann is fifth on the team in goals per game this season and should also benefit from Domi's playmaking ability. 

"I always joke with him, his sauce game is incredible," McMann said. "He knows how to put a puck up and over a stick and find you. And his work ethic on forecheck too is unparalleled. He can get pucks back for you and help a line out pretty good, so I'm excited."


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Nick Robertson is also excited. He'll draw back into the lineup for the first time since Feb. 29. 

"I definitely can't wait to get going and playing," the 22-year-old winger said. "Just excited to get back into everything that comes with a game day, the pre-game nap, the routines, getting back in the flow of things."

Robertson will slot in beside John Tavares and Matthew Knies on the third line. He has scored eight goals in 41 games this season, including potting one against the Hurricanes. 

"The whole season I've been probably playing my best NHL hockey," Robertson said. "It's just being calm and relaxed. When you play more consistently in games and get going it's easier to adapt to the league, easier to get confident, so I'm just playing with more ease and ease of mind out there and that's the biggest take away for me."

Robertson has faced a series of injuries early in his career. He played 35 games combined in his previous four NHL seasons. 

Keefe pointed out that Robertson tends to play his best when he returns to the lineup after a layoff. What's the secret to hitting the ground running? 

"Just starting off being simple and let the game come to me," Robertson said. "Obviously I haven't played in a couple weeks so as the touches and first period goes on just simplifying it and then once you get those touches you get comfortable. Part of playing good when you're getting back is just you're excited to come back ... maybe you're just fresh as well, so take that into consideration and use it to my advantage as well."  


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Lyubushkin, who missed Friday's practice, returned to the ice on Saturday morning. He's expected to play against the Hurricanes, but Toronto will have a seventh defenceman on the ice for warm-ups just in case. 

Teuvo Teravainen will miss the game for the Hurricanes due to a minor upper-body injury. 

Pyotr Kochetkov is expected to get the start for Carolina.   


Projected Leafs lineup for Saturday's game: 

Bertuzzi - Matthews - Holmberg 
McMann - Domi - Nylander 
Knies - Tavares - Robertson 
Dewar - Kampf - Gregor 

Brodie - McCabe 
Rielly - Timmins 
Edmundson - Liljegren 

Samsonov starts 

Lines at Hurricanes skate on Saturday morning: 

Svechnikov - Aho - Fast
Guentzel - Kuznetsov - Necas
Martinook - Staal - Jarvis
Lemieux - Kotkaniemi - Noesen

Slavin - Burns
Skjei - Pesce
Orlov - Chatfield

Kochetkov starts