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‘A lot of emotion’: Samsonov grabs win vs. former team in Maple Leafs debut

TORONTO – Ilya Samsonov was smiling and shaking. Shaking and smiling.

Just because the goaltender was given plenty of time to wrap his head around his first assignment as a Toronto Maple Leaf, it didn’t prevent the moment from influencing his thoughts and impacting his play.

Not only was Thursday Samsonov’s first time representing his new club — the one that’s gambling on him just as much as he’s betting on himself — but it was also the franchise’s home opener, with all the pomp and jitters that come packaged.

And it was a suddenly urgent bounce-back game, after the skaters laid an egg in Montreal in front of that other new goalie, Matt Murray.

And it was a leg-burning back-to-back date against the very franchise, the Washington Capitals, that drafted him in the first round, tried in vain to trade him away, and ultimately opted to let Samsonov walk away at age 25 as an unqualified restricted free agent.

“A lot of emotion in the first period,” Samsonov confessed. “You’re nervous, your reaction is slow, you’re moving bad. 

“Just mental.”

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Perhaps an early John Tavares power-play tap-in would ease the anxiousness? No dice.

Washington’s Nic Dowd finished off a pretty passing sequence, and Marcus Johansson gave the visitors a go-head marker less than four minutes later by firing a stoppable puck that squeaked under Samsonov’s right armpit.

By the time the first period concluded, Toronto had generated 11 high-danger chances to Washington’s zero, per NaturalStatTrick.com, yet the team that didn’t want Samsonov led 2-1. 

“A wake-up call,” Samsonov labels the softy. 

He settled his mind and held down the fort for the rest of the way, allowing the Maple Leafs time to align the scoreboard with the eye test. Toronto rallied to win 3-2 on the strength of goals from Calle Järnkrok and Auston Matthews.

And some stellar stops by the new cap-friendly goalie.

“I’ve been there before, too. Anytime you play your old team, it’s a game you get up for,” defenceman Mark Giordano said.

“He made some big saves through traffic. They’re a team that does a really good job of getting to the net and getting pucks through from the blue line, so I thought he did a good job. I thought we had a lot of guys step up and make some huge blocks as well.”

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Unlike Wednesday’s yacked-up furball at Bell Centre, Thursday’s Leafs prioritized defending and safe zone exits once they regained a lead. The pucks that did slip through — Anthony Mantha and Garnet Hathaway each had Garde-A chances late — Samsonov turned away, stopping 24 of the 26 pucks he faced.

“If you keep it at two or less,” Keefe said, “you have a chance to win consistently.”

Credit Toronto’s Justin Holl, selling out in Alex Ovechkin’s one-timer lane, and Jake Muzzin, throwing the body like old times, for a gritty response. And the Leafs’ penalty-killing unit, which improved to a perfect nine-for-nine.

Victory was sealed under pressure, with the Capitals pulling new backup Charlie Lindgren on the power-play for a 6-on-4 situation.

Washington tried weaseling into Samsonov’s kitchen.

“Even late in the game, during TV timeouts and stuff, I could see some of their players kind of getting in his ear a little bit,” Keefe said. “Who knows what they’re talking about?”

Samsonov: “My old teammates, a lot of talking with me today. Lots of bad words. That’s fine.”

For a host of reasons, Toronto’s second match of the season carried more weight than it should.

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Keefe ratcheted that tension himself by calling out his room for an “unacceptable” loss in the opener. 

Following Samsonov’s revenge night, the coach said that, yes, he only has so many bullets in his chamber. It’s rare to blast one after Game 1, but he felt it necessary.

“It was important for us to really talk about that. Be honest about it. Not just brush it aside as another game, one of 82. We had a frank discussion this morning. I thought the guys responded really well,” Keefe said. “Big win for us. Big win for him.

“Sammy did his thing.”

Indeed. 

The nerves have permission to temporarily subside, both Samsonov’s and those of Leafs Nation.

“I’m enjoying,” Samsonov said. “Get some smile right now. Win an important game for us. Everything’s good, you know?”

Welcome to the roller coaster, Sammy.

Fox’s Fast 5

• No Nicklas Backstrom. No Tom Wilson. No power-play motion.

This was the least frightening Capitals performance I’ve seen in quite some time.

• Great to see Rodion Amirov receive a warm introduction on opening night. 

The prospect recently completed yet another bout of chemotherapy. He hasn’t been on the ice in a while, but he’s training in the Maple Leafs gym and has been included in meetings.

“You talk about competing. I mean, here’s a guy who’s been through four rounds of chemo. To be here and still a big smile on his face every single day in the facility. He’s got the ultimate battle ahead of him here, and he’s right in the thick of it. We’re enjoying having him around,” Keefe says.

“His spirits are up, but obviously he’s got a big fight ahead of him.”

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• Tooth Fairy star Dwayne Johnson was a surprise guest (not to be confused with Tooth Fairy 2 star Larry the Cable Guy).

“A TV timeout, I’m kinda minding my own business, and then The Rock comes flying out of nowhere,” says game-winning goal-scorer Auston Matthews. “He really got the building going.”

(Originally, the Leafs had planned to have Johnson address the team before puck drop, but alas he had other commitments and couldn’t make it work.)

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• On any given night, rarely can you say the Maple Leafs outhit or out-shot-block their opponent. On Thursday, they did both.

Hits: 37-33 Toronto

Blocked shots: 17-9 Toronto

• Yes, for those wondering, the Maple Leafs’ goal song remains Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams.”

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