Ilya Samsonov is hurt. Matt Murray hasn’t played in more than a month. And Joseph Woll has just 13 NHL games under his belt. So who should Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe turn to for Game 4 with his team on the brink of being eliminated from the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs?
For me, it’s Woll. End of story.
But in Monday’s media availability, Keefe was noncommittal as to which netminder would start Wednesday’s pivotal game in Sunrise.
“(Samsonov) is feeling better today,” the Maple Leafs coach said. “So that’s positive. He’s going to get some tests and and MRI done today to have a better idea what’s happening with him. We do have some time on our side.”
Alright, I suppose that answer should have been expected. After seeing Samsonov – his No.1 goaltender – leave a game due to injury, there’s no way Keefe was going to play his hand early and proclaim a starter for Game 4.
But let me explain why I think Woll is the best option in goal for Toronto.
Even if Samsonov is available for Game 4, how healthy would the Russian netminder be? It’s widely known that he was battling something towards the end of the 2022-23 regular season. Who knows what Samsonov’s comfort level has been lately?
After a collision with Leafs teammate Luke Schenn ended Samsonov’s night early in the second period of Game 3, I thought for sure the Toronto netminder would be out for the foreseeable future. But given Keefe’s comments Monday, that might not be the case.
Regardless – as unfortunate as it was for Samsonov – his injury may have been a blessing in disguise for the Maple Leafs.
That’s because I think Woll is the most capable and consistent goaltender Toronto has. And I’ve been saying it for a while that I think having the former Boston College standout in the crease would provide the best chance of the Leafs winning the Stanley Cup.
At this point, coming back from a 3-0 deficit to the Florida Panthers would be a near miracle for Toronto. And I’m not expecting it to happen, especially considering how intentionally reckless Florida has played so far during the second round series. The Leafs have been far too passive and haven’t been able to match the intensity of the Panthers.
Woll was outstanding in relief on Sunday. He stopped 18 of 21 Florida shots and made several critical saves that helped push the game to overtime. But Woll was beaten on a wrap-around by Panthers forward Sam Reinhart just over three minutes into the extra frame.
The Leafs got caught standing around on Reinhart’s game-winning goal. And there’s plenty of blame to go around. But from my ex-goalie perspective, I didn’t like how Woll played it. He would have been better served using reverse-VH to seal the bottom of the net. But I think the speed of the play caught Woll by surprise.
Was it a rookie mistake? Not so much. It happens to goaltenders at every level. But I can guarantee Woll won’t forget Reinhart’s goal. The Panthers make a habit of attacking the net from in tight. I think Woll already has a solution in place should a similar play develop.
When asked about Woll on Monday, Keefe was complimentary. He praised the 24-year old netminder’s performance and demeanor, and reiterated how much confidence the Maple Leafs had in him.
“(Woll) wasn’t fazed when he went in the net yesterday,” Keefe said Monday. “He backed that up with his performance. Our group has a lot of confidence in him. And more importantly, he looked confident. He didn’t look like the moment was too big for him.”
It’s funny Keefe used that language, because it mirrors the conversation I had Sunday night with a former NHL goaltender-turned goalie coach. “Playing like he belongs,” he said towards the end of the third period.
That’s my feeling, too. And Keefe said the same after Sunday’s game. “I thought Woll was excellent,” said the Toronto bench boss. “Not surprised. He’s ready for this.”
Just take a look at Woll’s career arc. He was outstanding at Boston College, so much so that the Leafs signed him after his junior year. And while his first two professional seasons were marred by injury and the stop-start nature of COVID, Woll found his game during the 2021-22 season. He played well in the AHL last season and made his NHL debut with the Leafs, going 3-1-0 and posting a .911 save percentage.
But it’s really what Woll has done during the 2022-23 season that makes me believe he’s the right choice. He had a .932 save percentage and won six of seven regular season starts for the Maple Leafs. Woll also made the AHL All-Star team this year: unsurprising given his .927 save percentage and 16-4-1 record.
It’s not just the numbers. It’s the eye test. Woll has the technical chops to be consistent. He rarely loses the net. And he processes the game at a very high level.
The same can’t be said for Samsonov. And while he won the head-to-head battle with Tampa Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Samsonov’s performance was all over the place.
And that’s just Samsonov. The only thing consistent about him is inconsistency. It’s the reason why the Washington Capitals gave up on the former first-round draft choice.
So why would Keefe start an injured, inconsistent Samsonov when Woll is available? It wouldn’t make any sense. And the only thing that would make less sense would be starting Matt Murray straight out of the press box.
Murray hasn’t played a game since sustaining a head injury on April 2. And even then, it’s not like he was on a roll. After a hot start to the 2022-23 season, Murray’s game fell apart during the second half of the campaign. And I hate saying it, but it’s the truth: Murray is fragile. He’s spent a pile of time on injured reserve the past few seasons. I don’t think he can be trusted to stay healthy.
So for Game 4, Keefe has the choice of playing an injured goaltender (Samsonov), an often-injured goaltender (Murray), or an inexperienced goaltender (Woll).
Longtime NHL goaltender Curtis McElhiney chimed in on the Leafs predicament after Game 3 on Sunday, and his choice was clear.
I agree wholeheartedly.
Yes, experience matters. Murray, with two Stanley Cup rings, has plenty. But those championships came back in 2016 and 2017. It’s been a long time since the NHL has seen Murray perform consistently at such a high level.
For me the choice is clear for Toronto. Down 3-0 and facing elimination, it’s time for the rookie. Because not only is Woll the healthiest option in goal, he’s also the best the Maple Leafs have.
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