Ilya Samsonov’s frustrating season continues with loss to Maple Leafs

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Ilya Samsonov’s recent play for the Washington Capitals has been both maddening and frustrating. Within a single game, the goaltender can flash his high-caliber talent one period and then give up a soft, routine goal the next.

Samsonov has made his share of athletic saves this season. But, those impressive skills are often forgotten minutes later, when he can’t recover in time for a play or a long-range shot slips by with ease.

After Vitek Vanecek looked poised to be Washington’s No. 1 goaltender for the majority of the season, a bad stretch opened up the goalie competition once again. Samsonov responded with a handful of solid showings, beating Tampa, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with strong numbers to back it up.

Yet when Samsonov took the crease in Toronto Thursday or what became a 7-3 loss, his inconsistency popped up again. He was pulled in the second period after allowing four goals on 19 shots, but he also managed a couple big saves in the first period, including an astonishing stick save on William Nylander.

Nylander had a prime chance to double Toronto’s lead as he stared down an empty net, but Samsonov was able to reach back to get a piece of the puck.

Samsonov’s early exit didn’t do much to slow down the Maple Leafs’ attack, with Vanecek allowing three goals on 13 shots. Their teammates, though aren’t putting all the blame on the netminders.

“I think everyone looks like, ‘Oh the goalie got pulled and he had ‘X’ amount of shots and ‘X’ amount of goals and like I said, I think Sammy made two or three really big saves,” Nic Dowd said. “…the goals obviously are the last line of defense and when they give up a goal everyone tends to point in that direction.”

With eight games left in the regular season, where do the Capitals go from here? Washington didn’t trade for a veteran goaltender at the trade deadline and neither of its current two options stands out as a true No. 1.

On one hand, Samsonov has the ability to make big-time saves in the postseason. On the other hand, his inability to make the basic save has often led to his downfall. Vanecek, by contrast, regularly makes the routine saves, he just doesn’t flash the athletic prowess as Samsonov.

In the eyes of Capitals goaltending coach Scott Murray, both goals have a shot to take over. Murray thinks Samsonov has worked hard to make his game more efficient and consistent.

“I think he takes his game serious,” Murray said. “He is emotional but that can be a good thing. I think emotionally, mentally, I think he is trying to find that rhythm, that right way to feel. … he is learning more about himself, what makes him good.”

Samsonov said last week that his confidence was in a bad place earlier in the season, when Vanecek was getting the majority of the starts. Things started to improve, though, about four weeks ago when his parents came over from Russia. For Samsonov, having a larger in-person support system has helped.

“Long time I don’t play, [it was a] a little bit hard,” Samsonov said. “Your confidence is a little bit lost… you are thinking a lot about the time you didn’t play. You talk about confidence, you try [to] do more work in practice, make couple good saves and your confidence is back.”

It showed against Tampa on April 6, his first home win since Dec. 29 against Nashville. The game was Highlighted by his spectacular paddle save in the first period, when he was faced with a two-on-one rush from Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point.

Point made a pinpoint pass to Kucherov, who looked like he had the easy goal in front. However, Samsonov made a reaching stick save on one of the Lightning’s stars.

Still, as the season winds down, there are only a handful of chances left for Samsonov to make his case — and for a greater sense of consistency to sink in. All the potential is there — the question remains if he can ever fully reach it.

“He hasn’t shied away from big teams,” Murray said. “He’s beat Tampa before, Florida. So he hasn’t shied away from that. It is more focused on his game and what he needs to do and block out just some of the other noise that comes into play.”

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