TORONTO — Ilya Samsonov declared recently he doesn’t break.
Crucial to his team’s hopes of ending a generation of playoff misery, the Maple Leafs goaltender also wasn’t bothered by some down time ahead of what Toronto hopes will be a long post-season grind.
Samsonov sat out the final two games of the regular schedule with his team’s first-round hurdle — a rematch against the Tampa Bay Lightning — long set in stone.
“I rested mentally,” Samonov said Saturday following Toronto’s optional practice. “It’s really hard to play a lot.
“If we have a chance to rest, why not?”
With the Leafs set to host Game 1 of the best-of-seven series Tuesday, the Original Six franchise is banking on Samsonov’s solid campaign transitioning to the spring after he signed in free agency following an abrupt end with the Washington Capitals.
“He’s been awesome,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “Came in and fit right in and played extremely well. He rose to the challenge. It’s not easy coming into a new team, it’s not easy being (on a one-year) deal.
“He deserves all the credit in the world.”
Toronto would also be in big trouble without him.
The Leafs completely remade their crease connection in the summer by signing Samsonov, trading for Matt Murray and hiring goaltending coach Curtis Sanford.
But Murray, a two-time Stanley Cup champion as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, was unable to stay healthy following the swap with the Ottawa Senators for long stretches — a hallmark of his recent seasons — and is currently out with a concussion.
Samsonov, who missed time because of a knee injury in the fall, finished 27-10-5 with a .919 save percentage and a 2.33 goals-against average in 42 appearances in 2022-23 for an organization that hasn’t advanced in the playoffs since 2004 or won the Stanley Cup since 1967.
“Meshed together really well,” Leafs captain John Tavares said of the colourful Russian. “When challenges have come, he’s really faced them extremely well and has responded great.
“An important piece of our success.”
Samsonov arrived in Toronto on that one-year contract worth US$1.8 million after Washington declined to tender him a qualifying offer.
That shock quickly turned to excitement when he signed with the Leafs.
“So different for me … like two different worlds,” he said. “I love my teammates. I like this city. It’s unbelievable.”
The 26-year-old said he was receiving text messages from Toronto players within “three or four minutes” of putting pen to paper on his free-agent deal.
“So happy how friendly this team is,” said Samsonov, who won a KHL title with Magnitogorsk in 2016. “My first day in the locker room, everybody says hi, asking how you feeling, how you like it here?
“I feel more comfortable day-by-day, week-by-week.”
Rielly said Samsonov, never shy to joke with reporters in front of cameras or behind the scenes, was part of the group almost immediately.
“It’s a great balance,” Rielly said. “He lets his personality come through. With us, it’s the same thing. He’s always smiling, always laughing, always in on the joke.
“Then when it’s time to play hockey, he’s extremely focused.”
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said Samsonov’s relationship with Sanford has been key as they worked to build trust — and the goaltender’s game.
“We knew that he would be a guy looking to bounce back,” Keefe said. “Been very motivated and very focused. The talent has always been there. He’s got a great pedigree.
“Young guy that needed to kind of find his way.”
Keefe didn’t know a lot about Samsonov coming into the training camp, but has been thoroughly impressed.
“Really composed,” he added. “Hasn’t been a perfect season for him — it’s been a great season — but it hasn’t been a perfect season.
“He put in the work in the off-season to come in here and take advantage of his opportunity.”
Samsonov also showed a bit of his swagger Saturday.
“Everybody wanna win the Stanley Cup,” he said. “At the end of the day, a lot of good teams. And us too.
“I think we’re an elite team, probably the best team in the league.”
Tampa, which beat Toronto in seven games last spring, won the Cup in 2020 and 2021 before also making the 2022 final, while the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins set NHL records for wins and points this season.
Asked to explain, Samsonov doubled down.
“Because we have a nice group,” he said. “We have the best doctors, best therapists, best workout coaches, we have the best coaches.
“We have the best players.”
The Leafs will soon get a chance to back up those words.
Keefe said Murray is back skating after getting hurt April 2 against the Detroit Red Wings.
Joseph Woll, the Leafs’ third-string option, was on the ice on Saturday.
SCHENN’S SECOND SHOT
Luke Schenn is looking forward to finally getting a taste of playoff hockey in Toronto.
The 33-year-old defenceman started his career with the Leafs before getting traded in 2012.
Schenn, who played for seven organizations in the interim, won two Cups with Tampa before Vancouver shipped him to Toronto this season.
“You’d be lying if you said you haven’t thought about it,” he said of what playoff success in hockey’s biggest market might look like on the ground.
“But then in saying that, there are 16 teams out there right now all thinking the same thing.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 15, 2023.
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press