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Samsonov holding a hot hand as comeback tour hits Winnipeg

Ilya Samsonov Toronto Maple Leafs Ilya Samsonov - The Canadian Press

The Maple Leafs practised at Ford Performance Centre on Friday before flying to Winnipeg ahead of Saturday’s game against the Jets in Winnipeg. 

Ilya Samsonov is holding a hot hand on and off the ice right now. The Leafs goalie joined his teammates at the annual MLSE Foundation gala on Thursday night. This year it was a casino-themed event. 

"I won poker tournament," Samsonov said with a big smile. "I'm so excited." 

Is he good at cards? 

"Who knows," the 26-year-old said. "Yesterday, yeah."

The Leafs will be betting on Samsonov again on Saturday when they complete a home-and-home set against the Jets in Winnipeg. Samsonov stopped all 32 shots he faced to earn a 1-0 overtime win on Wednesday night. Fans in Toronto chanted his name and offered a standing ovation after Samsonov denied a 2-on-0 chance in the second period when the Leafs had a power play. 

"I almost cry," Samsonov said. "Long time I didn't listen to this. Yeah, this is huge."

Samsonov, who was given the team's player-of-the-game belt on Sunday following a win in Seattle, tried to pass it along to overtime hero Auston Matthews

"No, no, no," Matthews declared in the dressing room while walking the belt back to his goalie. "Sammy, unbelievable job. I can't accept it."

"You gotta tip your cap," said Jets goalie Laurent Brossoit. "He played really well. I knew we were in trouble after he made the 2-on-0 saves. The crowd got into it. You could tell he was starting to feel it. Gotta be happy for him after what he went through."

Samsonov got off to a disastrous start this season with an ugly .862 save percentage through 15 games. The Leafs placed him on waivers on Dec. 31. None of the other 31 teams put in a claim, so Samsonov was assigned to the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League. He spent some time working with Marlies goalie coach Hannu Toivonen before being recalled to the NHL on Jan. 10. Since then he's played three games and gotten better in each one. 

"I don't want to say nothing about, 'I'm back' or 'Not back.' I'm here right now," Samsonov stressed. "I get some good practice today and we'll see tomorrow. Yeah, day by day. Day by day. Moment to moment."

Samsonov's save percentage in the last three games is .944. Has he rebuilt trust with the team? 

"The trust is there," said Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe. "If it wasn't, we wouldn't put him back in. Certainly, the trust is there, but like any other player, it is about consistency. He can't prove his consistency until we consistently put him out there. That is really it. He has to keep stacking up good days. That is what today is for him, and that is what yesterday — in terms of a recovery day — is for. He has a chance to get back in the net and compete against a good team on the road tomorrow. Just keep stacking up these good days."

Samsonov looks like a different goalie right now. He feels more relaxed on the ice. 

"You need to get some relax and more easy moving," he explained. "Quicker in the net. This is probably the biggest part for me right now." 

"You can just see him being more and more like himself and just challenging shooters, being aggressive," observed captain John Tavares. "His skill-set really comes out."

It will likely be Vezina Trophy contender Connor Hellebuyck at the other end on Saturday night. Samsonov had his poker face on when asked about that matchup. 

"Doesn't matter who plays tomorrow, I just focus on my game," he said. "I think Winnipeg is pretty hard team. It's really hard to play against these guys."


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Calle Jarnkrok left practice after taking a Timothy Liljegren shot to his left hand. The winger slammed his glove on the ground as he walked to the dressing room with a member of the team's medical staff. 

"There is concern there for sure," said Keefe. "We won't know the extent until we give it a chance to settle down a little bit and get it looked at."

Jarnkrok has been skating on the third line with Max Domi and Nick Robertson, but the versatile winger often moves up the lineup late in games when the Leafs are protecting a lead. The 32-year-old Swede also provides offensive punch. His 10 goals are fifth on the team. 

"He is very consistent in who he is in terms of his details," said Keefe. "You can play him anywhere in any position. He can help on the power play and penalty kill. A very important player for us. He is a guy who doesn't get much attention, but inside our room I think he has a great deal of respect that he has earned over how he plays the game."

"He plays an important role, not always talked about," said Tavares. "His ability to play anywhere in the lineup with anyone is a great trait of his. Everyone enjoys playing with him because of what he brings to the table and how he complements everyone really well. Someone we rely a lot upon so hopefully it's nothing serious."

TSN Hockey Insider Chris Johnston reports there is "significant concern" there may be a break in the hand. 


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Left winger Bobby McMann missed practice. He also sat out Sunday's game in Seattle. 

"McMann, as we have talked about in the last couple of weeks with the back-to-backs, has been dealing with something that has been lingering," Keefe said. "We hoped it was going to improve over time, but it has lingered enough that it was determined that extending his break would be helpful for him. He will be going on the IR and won't be available for us tomorrow. We figured that by adding a few extra days to his break — yesterday, today, and tomorrow — off of the ice, we are hopeful that he will be past this when we come back."

The Leafs first game after the All-Star break is Feb. 5. 

With McMann and Jarnkrok hurting, the Leafs only have 12 healthy forwards travelling to Winnipeg. 

Winnipeg native Ryan Reaves, who hasn't played since hurting his knee on Dec. 14, was activated off long term injured reserve earlier this week. Reaves was not available to the media on Friday. 


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Tyler Bertuzzi, who missed Wednesday's game to be with his wife who was expecting the couple's second child, returned to practice on Friday. Bertuzzi skated in his usual spot on the second line with Tavares and William Nylander

"Really happy for him," said Tavares. "It's an amazing thing and everything went great. I know how thrilled he is, his family, so [I'm] excited to see him have some jump tomorrow. We told him he's a little fresher than everyone."

Keefe felt fatigue was a factor during Wednesday's game. 

"Now that we won the game and everything, to me, it looked like a team that was still on the plane and still on the West Coast," said Keefe. "That is what it looked and felt like ... I expect us to be a lot better, as I am sure they will be when they get in their building."

Sunday's showdown in Seattle was the end of an 11-games-in-20-nights stretch, which saw the Leafs make eight stops on the road. 


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Tavares and Nylander often stay out late after practice for extra work, but usually it's on their own or with a development coach. On Friday, the linemates worked together. Tavares passed pucks to Nylander in front and the winger shot them into an empty net. 

"He wanted to work on a few things so he asked me to shoot a few pucks," said Tavares. "It's always an easy answer (smile). You enjoy working on things especially when one of your linemates wants to do a little extra and do a few things ... That's the fun part is continuing to find your way, work on things, and get better, and to do that with your teammates, that's what it's all about."

Nylander has scored in just one of the last nine games. Tavares has not produced a point in nine games, which is his longest career drought. Nylander and Tavares haven't combined on the same scoring play since Jan. 6 in San Jose. 

"Willy is a competitor," said Keefe. "He set a high standard for himself early in the season. I think he has full expectations that was the player that he is and is what he is capable of doing. When it is not going that way, he is going to continue to work at it and not just be content. We really like that about Will."

Nylander scored in 17 of the first 37 games this season. 

Nylander still leads the Leafs with 61 points in 46 games. 

"The other night, in the second half of the game, he was really starting to come alive," Keefe noted. "His feet were really moving. That is what you need to see — guys wanting to work their way out of their situation. That is what I see from John pretty consistently, and Willy is just the same."

Nylander was not available to the media on Friday. 


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The Leafs dedicated a significant portion of Tuesday's practice to the power play. It didn't pay off. Toronto failed to convert despite getting five chances against the Jets on Wednesday. 

"It's not even close to our standard especially when you give up an opportunity like we gave up and the way Sammy had to bail us out," said Tavares, referring to the 2-on-0 chance. "Just the habits and the details and the work ethic has to be there."

The Leafs are now 1-for-20 over the last eight games. The one goal came on a 4-on-3 advantage in Calgary on Jan. 18. 

"We just got to get back to keeping it simple and to doing the things we were doing early in the year when we were really clicking," defenceman Morgan Rielly said. "Shooting more pucks and going from there. We're hanging onto it a little bit too long."

"Just a little bit disconnected," said Matthews. "We got to get on the same page and maybe simplify some things." 

The Leafs didn't work on the power play on the ice during Friday's practice. What's the key to getting on track? 

"You stay with it," said Keefe. "How long you stay with it is a question you have daily. We have one game remaining before the [bye and All-Star] break. It is a good opportunity for our guys to respond. That said, I do think the power play in the third period — when we had our chances — was far better than it was earlier in the game. We leave on somewhat of a positive in terms of at least generating some chances and looks. We could've scored, which would've changed a lot."

Under the direction of new assistant coach Guy Boucher, the Leafs have stuck with a stacked top unit – Rielly, Matthews, Nylander, Tavares and Mitch Marner – for most of the season. The Leafs have been experimenting with some new looks, including Nylander in the quarterback position and Rielly on the half wall. 

"They have had a recipe and a plan that has worked quite well throughout the season — even at times when we haven't scored — in terms of our chances, activity at the net, and being inside," Keefe said. "We have been at the top of the league in that area, really, all season long. It is just a matter of sticking with it. As the players individually play better, it is amazing how the power play starts to work. That is all part of it."

After going 3-for-3 against the Sharks on Jan. 9, the Leafs ranked sixth overall in power play percentage (27). 

"You want to stick with it and trust the guys who have had a great deal of success — and not just this season," said Keefe. "If you look at the offence those guys have generated, even when the puck hasn't gone in, we lead the NHL in a lot of categories when it comes to the power play. When the puck is not going in, you start to question things and look at things. We have one more game before the break. It is a good opportunity for our guys to step up in a big moment. We have discussed some other options, but trusting the group and giving them a chance to work themselves through it is important, especially with a break looming. If we don't get the response we are looking for, maybe we can start looking at other things."

The Leafs finished second overall in power-play percentage (26) last season. They currently rank ninth overall (23.7). 


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After the Leafs gave up the 2-on-0 on Wednesday, Keefe benched Matthews, Marner and Nylander during the next power play. He also started the second unit on the third power play of the game. 

"We just got to be better in those situations," said Matthews. "That's on us. We got to be better. We will be better."

"Obviously not good enough," said Marner. "We know that. We've been here for a long time and to give that up, especially on a power play in a game like that, it's unacceptable."

The trio had been on for a minute and 40 seconds when the 2-on-0 occurred. Matthews was at the bench for a change, Marner was hunched over at the top of the Jets slot and Nylander was deep in the offensive zone when Adam Lowry and Morgan Barron were able to collect a deflected clearance and break in all alone from the blue line with plenty of time. 

"Out too long," said Marner. "Just kind of a miscommunication. We take ownership of that. It's unacceptable and thank God for 35 [Samsonov] in there."

"They make a mistake in that spot," said Keefe. "It is a chance for me to hold them accountable and get some other guys involved."   


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Rielly, Matthews, Marner and Nylander will be representing the Leafs at the All-Star Game in Toronto. For Rielly and Nylander, it will be their first appearances at the mid-season showcase. Rielly says it's more meaningful because it's happening in Toronto. 

"It hit me more when I was talking to my dad," Rielly told reporters at the MLSE Foundation gala on Thursday night. "He was debating coming out or not and he called me back and said, 'I don't know what I was thinking. I'm coming for sure. I wouldn't miss it.' And then you kind of put it together. I feel very fortunate to be here and be in the position I'm in let alone playing a game like that. I just try to not take anything for granted, try to enjoy everything, and I just feel grateful to be a Maple Leaf."

Rielly, who was drafted fifth overall in 2012, is the longest-serving Leaf. 

"This is home now," the Vancouver native said. "I've lived here for 10 years, over 10 years, and I'm completely in love with the city and the people and the diversity and the fans and what it has to offer."

What's his favourite part of Toronto? 

"Diversity, weather, people, um, just everything," the 29-year-old said before cracking a smile. "Traffic. I don't care. I love it all."


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Leafs defenceman Conor Timmins was fined for cross-checking Seattle's Brandon Tanev into the boards during a race for the puck early in Sunday's game. 

"Usually when you're going into the corner with guys you're just trying to manipulate their hips and get body position so you can get the puck," Timmins explained. "I thought we had kind of slowed down enough where it wouldn't have that kind of impact. Thankfully he wasn't injured and just move on from there."

Timmins told Tanev it wasn't intentional in the immediate aftermath of the play. 

"It's a fast-paced game," Timmins said. "I'm not a malicious player. I thought he had gained control of the puck and slowed down enough where it wouldn't be an impact play like that."   



Lines at Friday's practice: 

Knies - Matthews - Marner
Bertuzzi - Tavares - Nylander 
Robertson - Domi - Jarnkrok 
Holmberg - Kampf - Gregor 

Rielly - Brodie
Benoit - McCabe
Giordano - Liljegren 
Lagesson - Timmins


Absent: McMann


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