Samsonov feels ready to play again after waivers wake-up call
The Maple Leafs skated (optional) at UBS Arena in Elmont, N.Y. on Thursday.
Following Thursday's optional skate, Ilya Samsonov spoke to the media for the first time since the Leafs put him on waivers on New Year's Eve.
"You're sad," said the 26-year-old goalie, who went unclaimed and was assigned to the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League. "Yeah, you're sad. But it's probably nice signal for your brain and your body. Man, wake up and you need back on track and working as hard as you can."
Samsonov, who was called up on Wednesday, did not want to dwell on his time away from the Leafs. He worked 1-on-1 with Marlies goalie coach Hannu Toivonen before practising with Toronto's minor-league team on Tuesday.
"I feel really positive," he stressed. "I stay positive all the time."
Samsonov has not played since allowing six goals on 21 shots in an overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Dec. 29. His .864 save percentage ranks 63rd out of 64 goalies who have played at least 10 games.
When will Samsonov be ready to play again?
"Brain is ready," he insisted. "I see the puck well. This most important for me. Simple details, that's it, that's what my concentration is right now."
Samsonov spoke to reporters for two and a half minutes before the media relations staff ended the availability. Initially, the team didn't want to subject Samsonov to questioning in order to preserve his mental health. However, the veteran of 146 NHL games seemed to be his usual cheery self and thanked reporters afterwards.
Martin Jones will make a sixth straight start on Thursday against the New York Islanders. The 34-year-old is playing well, but is due a day off at some point. The Leafs have a decision looming this weekend with games against Colorado on Saturday and Detroit on Sunday. Jones already played both ends of a back-to-back set last week in California.
Dennis Hildeby was sent back to the Marlies on Wednesday and is scheduled to start on Friday in the AHL. This is supposed to be a developmental year for the 22-year-old Swede, who is excelling during his first full season in North America.
The future remains uncertain but, for now, Samsonov is enjoying being back around the Leafs.
"Unbelievable," he said. "Seven days is a long time. The locker room is your second family. I'm happy to see everybody."
"He's a guy I enjoy being around," said defenceman Mark Giordano. "He's got a good attitude on him. A little bit of a jokester at the card table on the plane."
"Ilya does get to reconnect with the group," head coach Sheldon Keefe noted. "Working with [goalie coach] Curtis Sanford too and working with higher-calibre shooters in our practices, all these types of things [are] important to help him get back on track."
Samsonov was the first guy on the ice at Toronto's optional skate and the last one to leave.
"He's working his ass off out there," said Giordano. "We know he'll get back in a game. We got to play well when he gets back in there."
Samsonov sidestepped a question about whether he's open to playing in the AHL, which he hasn't done since the 2020-21 season.
"I don't want to talk about this, because it's not right now," he said. "I'm focused about what's going on right now."
Remarkably, Matthew Knies was back skating on Thursday morning only hours after needing help leaving the ice following a fall at practice.
"Just a really awkward situation," the top-line winger said. "I got a stick caught in my skate and fell awkwardly back onto my knee and twisted it wrong. Just was in a lot of discomfort there and didn't feel right."
Knies started to feel better almost as soon as he left the ice.
"It only took, honestly, an hour or two for it to settle," the 22-year-old said. "I just haven't felt that sensation in my knee before, the way I fell on it, so, just was a scary situation ... I've never really felt that pain before, so I didn't know what to expect. So, that's where I felt a little nauseous that I didn't want it to be too serious."
Knies said that he didn't feel any pain during Thursday's skate.
John Tavares is getting set to play his eighth game at the Islanders. Every time he comes back here, the fans shower their former captain with boos.
"A lot like Toronto, a very passionate fan base," Giordano said. "Johnny, as professional as he is, he still probably hears it a little bit and thinks about it a bit. But it doesn't affect his game at all, so that's the main thing."
"I don't think anyone looks forward to hearing those," Knies said. "It's a weird circumstance."
Tavares seems to be getting into a groove against his old team. He picked up just two goals and one assist in his first seven games against the Islanders, but has three goals and three assists in his last five reunions.
Keefe thinks the extra emotion can help his team tonight.
"It creates an environment," the coach said. "You come in here for a mid-week game and sometimes in the league those mid-week games can be a little quiet and different and it brings a little more to it for sure."
The Leafs have won four straight games while allowing just three goals.
"There's a number of things that go into it," said centre Auston Matthews. "In the end, it's more of a mindset and five guys being out there and all being on the same page and understanding where each of us is going to be and what the objective is when there is time in our defensive zone. It's a number of things, but I just think the mindset for the most part has been the biggest shift."
Over their last five games, the Leafs have outscored their opponents 11-1 in 5-on-5 play.
"We're breaking the puck out better," said defenceman Morgan Rielly. "When we're playing more D-zone it's often because we're not breaking the puck out as clean and that's on the D core most of the time. We're doing a good job of that. We're not turning the puck over as much. We're taking care of it a bit better and we're just playing within structure."
The last three wins have come against teams (Anaheim and San Jose) out of a playoff spot. The Leafs swept a home-and-home series with the last-place Sharks while outscoring them 11-2.
The Islanders currently hold a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
"It's going to be a different type of game than we've played here of late," Keefe cautioned. "Different type of opponent, different type of challenge and we talked about that. I believe we're prepared for that. It may take us a little bit to recalibrate, but those are the things we're focused on today."
The Islanders should be an ornery group after falling 5-2 to the Vancouver Canucks at home on Tuesday.
"Aggressive team offensively," Keefe warned. "They're going to come to the net hard. Puck is going to go to the net. Great goaltending and they play well in transition. They almost bait you into some of those plays where you want to put the puck to the middle of the ice and they turn on it really quickly. They defend the middle of the ice really well."
No Cizikas, no Varlamov at #Isles morning skate.— Andrew Gross (@AGrossNewsday) January 11, 2024
All new lines
Sorokin (starter's net)
Projected Leafs lineup for Thursday's game:
Knies - Matthews - Marner
Bertuzzi - Tavares - Nylander
Holmberg - Domi - Jarnkrok
McMann - Kampf - Gregor
Rielly - Brodie
Benoit - McCabe
Giordano - Liljegren