For Leafs’ Samsonov, focus in wake of Masterton nod is what comes next

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Rather than dwell on why he is the Maple Leafs nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, goaltender Ilya Samsonov only has interest in what comes next. 

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“I’m focused right now for the future for this team,” Samsonov said on Friday. “I don’t think about what is in the past. It’s not too good being this nomination.”

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What Samsonov implied was that what he had to endure — time away from the team to get his game back in order as well as the struggles that preceded it — earlier in the 2023-24 season didn’t add up to fun times.

It got to the point that the Leafs took a chance that Samsonov’s time with the team could end when they placed him on waivers at the end of December. After Samsonov went unclaimed by another National Hockey League team and cleared, there still wasn’t a guarantee he would get back in the crease with the Leafs.

Only after weeks of work with Leafs goalie coach Curtis Sanford and Toronto Marlies goalie coach Hannu Toivonen did Samsonov get another opportunity. He lost in his first start back on Jan. 14 against Detroit, but in 20 games since, has gone 16-3-1 with a .913 save percentage. 

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There’s no doubt that Samsonov should be the Leafs’ starting goalie once the Stanley Cup playoffs start.

“He put in the work and he got out of whatever head space he was in and came back and he has been unbelievable for us,” Leafs winger Ryan Reaves said. “He has stolen some games, he has kept us in games. (The nomination) is well-deserved. He has turned his season around.

“A stretch like that can break guys and he didn’t let it break him. He stuck with it.”

Said captain John Tavares: “We love him as a teammate. To be able to persevere like he has this year shows his true character and also the talented netminder that he is.”

That Samsonov’s interest lay in looking ahead and not back fits with the attitude that has been his guide in the past several months. Of course, what comes in the next several weeks for the Leafs is paramount to anything that has happened to this point.

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“The way that he has handled himself mentally and dealing with whatever’s coming at him, pressures or challenges, adversities, the fact that he’s been able to stay in the moment has really helped him find his game and focus on the things that can help him get better,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. 

“That’s important for anybody, but particularly for him and the way that the season started to where he is now. That has been the biggest area of improvement for him. And it’s great to see that he remains that way.”

Awarded since the 1967-68 season, the Masterton Trophy, voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, has been won once by a Maple Leafs player. That came in 2007-08, when forward Jason Blake played in all 82 games after he was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia.

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Samsonov has a career record of 5-1-1 against the Montreal Canadiens and is expected to get a chance to build on that at the Bell Centre. 

What does a game on a Saturday night in Montreal mean to Samsonov?

“Unbelievable, huge,” Samsonov said. “Never better game in Canada hockey (than) Toronto-Montreal. Full stadium. Fans are so loud. A lot of Toronto fans come to Montreal to support us. I like to play this game.”

A Leafs victory on Saturday would mark their 23rd road win and would tie the franchise record for one season, set in 2003-04 and equaled twice since.

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William Nylander on recently recording his 95th point, giving him one more than Mats Sundin, who previously had the most points by a Swedish Leafs player in one season: “I think it’s really cool. Mats Sundin is incredible, a legend. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my teammates and hopefully I keep it going.” … Samsonov got our vote as the Leafs’ Masterton nominee. Bobby McMann, Simon Benoit and Reaves also received consideration … As expected, defenceman Joel Edmundson, who has missed the past five games as he deals with an undisclosed injury, was a full participant in practice. Edmundson won’t play in Montreal, however, and was paired with Connor Timmins, an indication that the latter will be scratched against the Canadiens. Mark Giordano, who was scratched versus Tampa Bay on Wednesday, will be back in the lineup on a pairing with TJ Brodie … After finishing the Ontario Hockey League regular season with a 36-game point streak, Leafs prospect Easton Cowan recorded a point in each of the London Knights’ four first-round wins in a four-game sweep of the Flint Firebirds. Cowan had two goals and three assists in the series … The Leafs will be going for a three-game season sweep of the Canadiens.

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The list of 2023-24 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy nominees:

Anaheim: Urho Vaakanainen

Arizona: Connor Ingram

Boston: Danton Heinen

Buffalo: Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen

Calgary: Oliver Kylington

Carolina: Frederik Andersen

Chicago: Colin Blackwell

Colorado: Jonathan Drouin

Columbus: Zach Werenski

Dallas: Matt Duchene

Detroit: Alex Lyon

Edmonton: Vincent Desharnais

Florida: Oliver Ekman-Larsson

Los Angeles: Viktor Arvidsson

Minnesota: Marco Rossi

Montreal: Joel Armia

Nashville: Michael McCarron

New Jersey: Curtis Lazar

N.Y. Islanders: Cal Clutterbuck

N.Y. Rangers: Jonathan Quick

Ottawa: Claude Giroux

Philadelphia: Sean Couturier

Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby

San Jose: Justin Bailey

Seattle: Joey Daccord

St. Louis: Nathan Walker

Tampa Bay: Mikey Eyssimont

Toronto: Ilya Samsonov

Vancouver: Noah Juulsen

Vegas: Alex Pietrangelo

Washington: T.J. Oshie

Winnipeg: Laurent Brossoit

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