Samsonov, Maple Leafs confident entering Stanley Cup Playoffs

That response drew raised eyebrows from the scrum of reporters surrounding him, but the goalie didn’t waver in his response to the follow-up questions.

“Everybody wants to win the Stanley Cup. It’s the truth,” Samsonov said. “At the end of the day, [there are] a lot of good teams. And us too.

“I think we’re an elite team.

“We have the best doctors, best therapists, best workout coaches. We have the best coaches, we have the best players.”

One team that may beg to differ is the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have advanced to the Stanley Cup Final each of the past three seasons, winning the Cup in 2020 and 2021.

Tampa Bay will face Toronto in a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference First Round, which the Lightning won in seven games. Game 1 will be at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; ESPN, CBC, SNE, SNO, SNP, TVAS, BSSUN).


[RELATED: Complete Maple Leafs vs. Lightning series coverage]


Let’s make no mistake, though. There was an innocence and naivete to Samsonov’s words, with no malice or thoughts that it could, and likely will, translate into bulletin board material down the road.

There wasn’t the anger that New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath harbored when he proclaimed his team was “going to win the game, I guarantee it” against the Baltimore Colts prior to Super Bowl III. For the record, they did, winning 16-7 on Jan. 12, 1969.

Nor was there the swagger of New York Rangers captain Mark Messier, who guaranteed a victory prior to Game 6 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Final. Messier delivered on that guarantee, scoring a hat trick in the third period to help New York rally for a 4-2 win against the New Jersey Devils. The Rangers would subsequently win Game 7 in double overtime before going on to claim their first Stanley Cup championship in 54 years.

Truth is, if the Maple Leafs are to back up Samsonov’s words, or at least be good enough to win a postseason series for the first time since 2004, he’ll be required to play a significant role.

But against the Lightning, at the other end of the ice will be Andrei Vasilevskiy, who many consider to be the best at his position. With good reason.

Vasilevskiy won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender in 2018-19 and the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2020-21. In 104 playoff games (99 starts), he is 63-38 with a 2.30 goals-against average, .923 save percentage and seven shutouts.

Although Vasilevskiy didn’t quite heap the same praise on the Maple Leafs on Saturday that Samsonov did, he did acknowledge that Toronto is one of the elite teams in the League.

“It’s hard, especially when we’re playing a top-three … in my opinion a top-three team in the NHL,” Vasilevskiy said after practice in Tampa. “It will be hard. They have a lot of great players.”

Vasilevskiy added that the Lightning can’t play like they did at the end of the regular season, when they lost four of their final five games, including 4-3 to the Maple Leafs on April 11.

“We have to put our mindset in a playoff mode and flip the switch,” he said. “But we have to work hard to flip it.

“We’ll see in a few days.”

For his part, Samsonov can’t wait. It’s the opportunity he’s coveted since signing a one-year, $1.8 million contract with the Maple Leafs on July 13.

Last season, Samsonov was 23-12-5 with a 3.02 GAA, .896 save percentage and three shutouts in 44 games (39 starts) for the Washington Capitals. He went 1-3 with a 2.97 GAA and .912 save percentage in five playoff games (four starts).

When the Capitals opted to move on from him in the offseason, he was brought in by the Maple Leafs, as was veteran Matt Murray. However, an injury-plagued season for Murray opened the door for Samsonov, who thrived, going 27-10-5 with a 2.33 GAA, .919 save percentage and four shutouts (each an NHL career best).

Evgeny Kuznetsov, his friend and former teammate with Washington, has been impressed by Samsonov’s play on the ice as well as his ability to handle the spotlight that comes with playing in hockey-crazed Toronto.

“I think mentally he’s strong,” Kuznetsov said. “He can handle all that noise, all that stuff. I hope he stays healthy and no injuries. If there is no injuries, I think he can perform and he can compete against Vasilevskiy on a good note.”

Kuznetsov said he’s seen Samsonov’s play evolve with the Maple Leafs.

“He doesn’t change his game a lot, but overall, he got better,” he said. “That’s why the numbers are better and he has to be there where he’s supposed to be, let’s say [it] that way.”

Asked if Samsonov looks happy in Toronto, Kuznetsov replied, “Definitely, yes.”

He has plenty of reasons to be, whether it’s getting the chance to be the No. 1 goalie for a playoff team, or because he and wife, Maria, welcomed their first child, a son named Miroslav, into the world three weeks ago.

Either way, his happy-go-lucky personality has been as infectious in the Maple Leafs locker room as his play has been on the ice.

“He’s been awesome,” Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly said. “I don’t know if there’s much more to it. He’s kind of risen to the challenge. It’s not easy coming into a new team, and he’s been outstanding.

“He’s always laughing, always smiling, always gets in on the jokes. He’s at the card table playing. But when it comes time to play hockey, he’s extremely focused. Even at practice, he’s here early and doing extra work, doing what he needs to do to get ready.”

At that moment, Samsonov strolled past Rielly en route to his own stall.

“Hey ‘Sammy,’ I’m talking about how great you are,” Rielly said.

“Good,” the goalie replied with a chuckle.

There’s that sense of humor Rielly was referring to.

One thing Samsonov doesn’t joke about, however, is his passion for the Maple Leafs and the city they play in.

“So different for me … like two different worlds,” he said. “I love my teammates. I like this city. It’s unbelievable. Everybody who I know here and I’ve met is so nice, real good [people]. I love to be here so much.

“I signed my contract and after three or four minutes everybody texted me, so happy, how friendly this team is. My first day in the locker room, everybody says hi, asking ‘How are you feeling, how are you doing moving to Toronto, how do you like it here?’ Everybody’s so friendly. I feel more comfortable day by day, week by week.

“I love everybody here. I’m so enjoying coming to the rink every day.”

Samsonov compared the vibe this year to that of 2016, when he won the Gagarin Cup with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League.

“I feel the same way now,” he said.

Maybe so, but only time will tell if Samsonov and his teammates can walk the walk after he so boldly talked the talk.