All smile, Ilya Samsonov returns for Maple Leafs: ‘I feel no pain’

TORONTO – The smile is back.

Ilya Samsonov — the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ forgotten man in goal — will make his long-awaited return to the crease Wednesday versus the San Jose Sharks after spending the past two and a half weeks on injured reserve.

“I’m happy to be back,” an upbeat Samsonov told reporters. “Last couple days I feel no pain, and I’m really excited. Feeling good. Ready to play.”

The 25-year-old kept his new club afloat through October, amassing a 6-2 record and sparkly .921 when No. 1 Matt Murray was sidelined early due to an adductor injury.

Samsonov was essentially deked onto IR during this Brad Marchand penalty shot midway through his 2-1 Nov. 5 victory over Boston:

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“I feel hurt in my knee, and the next attack I feel my knee is not moving great,” Samsonov said. “It’s so loose. I feel bad.”

Samsonov finished the second period in pain, then had his left knee examined during intermission by team physicians.

“Doctors say, ‘No more. Thank you, Sammy,’ ” the goalie recalled.

“This is hockey life. I need to stay professional. I feel good right now. I’ve not lost a lot. I skated on second or third day after injury. I skated all the time. I feel good. My confidence, my conditioning is pretty normal.”

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Murray (5-1-1, .927) and the Leafs have been superb in Samsonov’s absence, allowing the backup to feel fully healthy.

With Murray carrying the load on Toronto’s recent 4-0 road trip, Samsonov’s return is timely.

Since playing a career-high 50 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2018-19, Murray’s workload has been kept to 38 or fewer appearances per season.

The crease was meant to be shared, to avoid taxing one netminder too heavily.

Ironically, third-string goalie Erik Källgren has seen more action than either Samsonov or Murray.

To finally have both halves of GM Kyle Dubas’s new-look tandem healthy and available is a relief.

Expect Murray to return to the net Saturday in a showdown with the Maple Leafs’ 2022 playoff nemesis, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

One-Timers: Samsonov predicts that Mitch Marner will have no problem matching the Maple Leafs’ point-streak record Wednesday. If Marner gets on the scoresheet, he’ll tie Ed Olczyk (1989-90) and Darryl Sittler (1977-78) with a franchise-best 18-game run. Fittingly, Marner’s streak began in San Jose…. After two games in the press box, Nick Robertson draws back into the lineup in favour of Denis Malgin…. Defenceman Conor Timmins’s Maple Leafs debut is still on hold as fellow righty Mac Hollowell looks to go 5-0 in the NHL…. T.J. Brodie’s recovery from an oblique injury “hit a wall,” Keefe says, and has been slower than expected. The defenceman’s progress has recently taken a turn for the positive. Wednesday marked his best on-ice session. No return date is set.

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Maple Leafs projected lineup Wednesday vs. San Jose Sharks

Bunting – Matthews – Nylander 
Järnkrok – Tavares – Marner 
Kerfoot – Holmberg – Engvall  
Aston-Reese – Kämpf – Robertson 

Giordano – Holl 
Sandin – Liljegren 
Mete – Hollowell

Samsonov starts
Murray

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