How Toronto’s goaltending duo have found simultaneous success

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TORONTO — Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov present as an ideal odd couple. A classic yin-and-yang, if you will.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have just wrapped up practice and their goaltenders sit side by side at the front of the room in companionable conversation.

Murray then rapidly becomes focused on removing and storing his gear, politely postponing interview requests until after retreating to the player’s lounge for a replenishing smoothie.

Meanwhile, Samsonov remains sweating through his full kit, engaged in an amiable chat elsewhere about favorite television shows and laughing through the benefits — or not — of selecting subtitles in his native Russian.

It’s one brief snapshot captured of a singular goalie tandem producing two terrific seasons. Look closer, and you start to see what makes them tick.

Murray eventually encourages Samsonov to finish dressing before they’ll sit down together with ESPN to talk about what’s been a flourishing first half to this season.

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The ice breaker is asking each goalie to describe the other in a single word. Samsonov doesn’t hesitate.

“Hardworking,” he says of Murray, nodding affirmatively as if to confirm it’s the only correct response.

Murray, now wielding a wry smile, takes longer.

“One word? One word is not enough,” he says, continuing to think out loud. “One word is tough. I can’t narrow him down to just one word. He’s too complex. But maybe I’d say, fun. He’s a fun dude. That’s a good one.”

It’s also what the Leafs have in their goaltending duo: a good one. Murray and Samsonov display an easy chemistry off the ice that reflects in how seamlessly they’ve shared Toronto’s crease. So far, Murray’s produced superbly, at 10-4-2 with a .916 save percentage and 2.57 goals-against average. Samsonov has been stellar, at 12-3-1 with a .916 save percentage and 2.29 goals-against average.

The results from the two are equally excellent. It’s the approaches that aren’t the same. Theirs are different styles, different strengths and weaknesses, different perspectives. Even opposing methods on how to answer the same question. But Murray and Samsonov also seem to click.

Maybe it’s from being thrown into the same fire — via different routes, of course — through a barrage of offseason skepticism that two newcomers could shore up Toronto’s most glaring area of need. Whatever the reason, Murray and Samsonov have arrived exactly where they want to be.

At exactly the same time.

TORONTO REACHED A crossroads last summer.

The Leafs’ incumbent starting goalie Jack Campbell was an unrestricted free agent eyeing the payday to match his breakout 2021-22 campaign (31-9-6 record, .914 SV%, 2.64 GAA). Toronto hadn’t, for whatever reason, ponied up to keep Campbell around.

It also wasn’t likely the Leafs would turn to backup Petr Mrazek either, after the veteran’s disastrous first season with the team — 12-6-0, .888 SV%, 3.34 GAA — to open a four-year long pact.

Basically, changes were afoot. Toronto was ready to restructure.

Mrazek went first, shipped to Chicago on July 7 with draft picks exchanged on both sides to sweeten the deal. Campbell would eventually head west too, becoming Edmonton’s new No. 1.

While that happened, Murray, 28, was four hours down the highway from Toronto locked in a bad marriage with the Ottawa Senators. The former Pittsburgh Penguin (and two-time Stanley Cup champion) signed there in October 2020, inking a four-year, $25 million deal that failed to pan out as expected. Murray was frequently hurt. The Senators were losing, a lot.

Murray was eventually waived in November 2021 and sent to the American Hockey League’s Belleville Senators to play a pair of games. Back in the NHL, the veteran battled hard (5-12-2, .906 SV%, 3.05 GAA) until a season-ending concussion injury took him out in March.

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It was a bad situation. So naturally, Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas turned a few heads when he acquired Murray via trade on July 12. The return was future considerations and Ottawa retaining 25% of Murray’s salary. Granted, Dubas and Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe had history with the Thunder Bay, Ontario native from their time as GM, coach and goaltender respectively for the OHL’s Sault-Ste Marie Greyhounds in the early 2010s. But still, Ottawa was practically giving away Toronto’s next starter.

One day later, Dubas secured Samsonov. The 25-year-old was coming off a career-worst season (.896 SV%, 3.02 GAA) in Washington, where he’d played since being drafted 22nd overall by the Capitals in 2015. Samsonov had newly hit the open market after Washington failed to qualify him when Toronto swooped in on July 13 with a one-year, $1.8 million contract offer.

“This is a great team, yeah?,” Samsonov says now of choosing to become a Leaf. “The last five, six years, there’s been very strong leadership. It’s a nice city to play hockey in; it’s the best in the world. It’s not every day that a GM calls you and asks you if you want to go to play in Toronto. It’s not an everyday chance. I wanted to try. You have nice teammates here. And we have a good chance to win.”

That opportunity helps mitigate other, less alluring aspects of suiting up in blue and white. Toronto is a notoriously pressure-packed market desperate for the playoff success it felt promised by an enormous investment in the club’s offensive corps. Murray’s injury history made him an easy target of critics unwilling to believe he could stand tall in Toronto. Those concerns weren’t quelled when he suffered a hip injury in October after playing only one game.

If Murray felt the sting of criticism — before or after — he doesn’t let on.

“I don’t know. It’s hard to compare something like [pressure],” Murray said. “No matter where you play, there’s always going to be pressure. Everybody wants to win. You put pressure on yourself, and you just want to do the best you can for yourself, for your teammates, for everybody, for the organization. It’s just learning how to deal with it, how to take things one day at a time and just try to enjoy the ride. I’m definitely enjoying the ride this year.”

Samsonov releases a noise of assent. He missed time with an injury too, joining Murray on the sidelines in early November with a knee ailment. Despite that, Samsonov said they’re having a good time. And that’s morphed into potent parallel seasons for another big reason they both — shockingly — agree on.

“I think the biggest factor in that [success] is the way the team is playing in front of us,” Murray notes. “That dictates the difficulty of our job and the type of chances that we’re seeing and the amount of them that we’re seeing. Our team is playing incredibly well defensively.”

“If you can see a puck well in a game, life is much easier,” adds Samsonov, entering his own soliloquy about the virtue of a full-team effort. “And you know me and Matt, we both are good guys. We’re good teammates, and we try to push each other. And this [tandem] has felt good for us. We never stop. We’re always trying to get better every day for our teammate.”

“I can’t narrow him down to just one word,” Murray, right, said of Samsonov. “He’s too complex. But maybe I’d say, fun. He’s a fun dude. That’s a good one.” David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

Murray and Samsonov were lucky. They bonded from day one (“he was a nice guy,” Samsonov said fondly of meeting Murray). It was correspondingly painless learning how to be each other’s motivation.

“Sometimes you come to the rink, and you don’t want to do nothing,” Samsonov explained. “We’re humans, too. But when you see how your partner is working, you try to get better, or you try to do the same as they’re doing. Sometimes mentally you’re going down, and you don’t want to do nothing, or you feel bad. But to see what’s your partner doing, you ask, ‘can you try to get with him and do more?'”

“Everything feeds off [something else],” Murray said. “On those days when maybe you don’t have all the juice that you’d like to have, you look at the guy across from you, and you see the work ethic that they’re bringing, and you just want to match that.”

SOME TEAMS ARE compelled to pick a starting goaltender and ride him. Others crave a more balanced approach.

Both tracks can work. And Toronto’s choice to lean heavily on its one-two punch is paying off.

Let’s back up: Through Jan. 10, 79 different goalies made at least one NHL start this season. Nine teams started one goalie in at least 70% of their games, to be what you’d call a “workhorse.” Eight of those nine netminders were on teams in playoff position (Arizona’s Karel Vejmelka being the lone exception) and together the nine goalies had a .913 save percentage.

On the other side, 11 teams had started two goalies in at least 35% of their games. Seven of those clubs were in playoff position, and there was a collective .906 SV% among those netminders.

Murray and Samsonov had, to that stage, each played exactly 39% of Toronto’s tilts. Together they sat top 20 in save percentage among goalies with at least 10 starts. Samsonov was fourth in GAA, and Murray was 15th. Both goaltenders have been reliably ascending towards the NHL’s upper tier.

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That didn’t happen without setbacks. Murray sat out four weeks with that hip issue. Samsonov’s three-week absence overlapped. Toronto clung then to rookie Erik Kallgren, striving to stay afloat until their regulars returned. Murray and Samsonov came back and delivered, until recent intersecting rough patches led to recycled conversations about Toronto’s propensity for goalie woes.

It was on Murray and Samsonov to keep their own heads up through mutual support.

“It’s hard to do this, because if you didn’t play [in a certain game] you don’t understand,” Samsonov said. “I’m trying not to touch [on] a lot, because he has more insight and you just watched, and your words don’t help too much. But even if your emotion is bad or a little bit lower, the next day, the sun is up again. After [a bad loss], Matt said good words to me. He said, ‘Don’t think about this. You just need to move on. Get some good food, good sleep and you’ll be getting better.'”

“A lot of times with goaltending, results don’t necessarily always show the best picture or tell the best story,” Murray said, a shrewd look on his face. “You could do everything in your power the right way and still get a weird bounce or the guy makes a great play, and you still get scored on or maybe you get a couple of weird bounces in a game. So you focus on the process and just doing what you can to control the situation to the best of your ability. The result will take care of itself if you’re doing the right process.”

And, in a pinch, lean on the guy next to you. He knows better than most.

“We’re always sitting together, always on the ice together early. We’re always paired,” Murray said. “We’re on a different time and pace than everyone else.”

MURRAY AND SAMSONOV are opposites attracting. Goaltending is the common ground; how each player excels at it varies.

“He is doing a lot before a game,” Samsonov said of Murray. “He is good at getting prepared. It’s not superstitions, but it’s a lot of preparation. A lot more than me; way more than me. I’m trying to get ready one hour before our team meeting. I come to the game rink, get simple stuff done. I tape my stick. Get some food. Nothing crazy.”

Murray concedes with a smile that “everybody has their routines.” Those extend to game day mornings too, where — surprise — Murray and Samsonov put faith in opposing rituals when it’s their turn to start.

“I prefer not to [take morning skate],” Murray said. “I just find I get a better nap when I don’t skate. And as I get older, something that comes into contention a little bit more is the wear and tear on hips and knees and all that stuff. And I always just feel more energetic and a little bit looser. If you do skate in the morning, it’s almost like you have to recover again before the game starts, for me anyway.”

His partner rolls entirely the other way.

“I like to skate, not more than 20 minutes though; not too long,” he said. “I just want to see the puck a little bit and have a simple drill just to see, how is my arm working? How is my body prepared for a game? And just to feel the puck with my eyes. It’s just what I need in the morning, so I’ll feel good, and it helps me a little bit mentally, too.”

“It’s a nice city to play hockey in; it’s the best in the world,” Samsonov said. “It’s not every day that a GM calls you and asks you if you want to go to play in Toronto.” Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

The duo’s eating habits are another study in contrasts. Samsonov loves all the sushi options available in Toronto’s downtown core; Murray’s favorite spot is a lush Italian restaurant in the city’s posh Yorkville neighborhood, when he’s not indulging in wife Christina’s home cooking.

And those meals before a game? One’s a creature of habit with his plate; another can’t stand food-based monotony.

“I always switch it up because I just tend to get tired of eating the same exact thing,” Murray said. “The base of it kind of stays the same. I usually have a bowl of soup, a salad, pasta of some kind, protein, and then like a sweet potato. But I like to switch up the dressing or the sauce on the chicken. I get sick of eating the exact same thing every game day.”

“I eat the exact same thing on game day,” Samsonov counters excitedly. “At lunch I’m doing just the chicken with rose sauce and spaghetti all the time, before every game. And right before playing I’ll do some oat milk [for fuel]. I didn’t change this for the last five years. I like it. But in the offseason, no spaghetti. It’s not working then.”

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Murray laughs lightly as Samsonov finishes dissecting his palate. It’s frequently made clear how much they enjoy each other’s company, how an easy rhythm has formed in just a few months’ time.

And true to form, they cite two distinct moments as their season highlight to date.

For Samsonov, it was beating Washington in his first start as a Leaf. His was the ultimate revenge game.

For Murray, it was watching Samsonov’s triumph in an all-around win. That was a night where Murray could truly feel Toronto’s potential — and how fortunate he and his partner are to be a part of that.

“I was on the bench, we were playing against Anaheim, and we won 7-0 at home,” Murray recalled. “I just remember thinking we were firing on all cylinders. We just dominated play. I thought the whole game, our forecheck was great, we stripped pucks, we barely spent any time in our zone, he [Samsonov] was great. I just thought it was a real, real dominant effort.

“That’s what stands out to me most about us, when we can play games like that. That’s when it’s good.”