Give Joseph Woll the Maple Leafs net and see what he can do

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There is no goaltending controversy with the Maple Leafs.

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It should be fairly straightforward for coach Sheldon Keefe and his staff. 

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Ride Joseph Woll for the next little while and see where he goes with an increased workload.

Keefe acknowledged after the Leafs’ 4-3 overtime win in Tampa against the Lightning on Saturday that Woll already had been slotted in for the start in Washington on Tuesday. Woll will get the call against a Capitals team that has struggled in its first four games under new coach and former Leafs assistant Spencer Carbery, winning once as it sits in last place in the Eastern Conference. 

Alex Ovechkin has done little of consequence so far, registering two assists and nine shots on goal as his chase of Wayne Gretzky’s goal record has hit a roadblock. Ovechkin remains 72 goals shy of tying Gretzky’s mark of 894 for most in National Hockey League history.

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Never mind that, unlike Ilya Samsonov, Woll has been demonstrating that he is building off what was a personally successful 2022-23 season.

In two games, including the sparkling relief appearance at Amalie Arena, Woll has faced 59 shots and fished the puck out of the net after just three of them; Samsonov has allowed 14 goals on 83 shots for an unacceptable .831 save percentage. 

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It wouldn’t be out of desperation, with fingers crossed, if the Leafs decided to give Woll a good run. He has earned it.

Of greater focus should be Samsonov’s early pitfalls. While Tampa star Nikita Kucherov can give any NHL goalie fits on any given night, Samsonov wasn’t able to get properly set on Kucherov’s second goal on Saturday and was beaten cleanly on the first one. 

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Keefe didn’t elaborate in his post-game availability when asked about pulling Samsonov in favour of Woll at 13:29 of the first period, not that he really had to.

“You can’t let in three goals on four shots,” Keefe said. “That’s it.”

Woll didn’t have much time to think as he went to work so early in a game after not starting.

“Just dialled in and go stop the puck,” Woll said. “I try to be ready for any situation and it just so happens I got the opportunity to go in.

Four games is a small sample size for Samsonov, no doubt. Clearly, however, there is some technical work to be done with Samsonov on the part of Leafs goalie coach Curtis Sanford. The concern going into the season was whether Samsonov could stay healthy enough to carry the workload. Now, and this is a bit worse, the concern is, or should be, about Samsonov’s overall performance.  

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There’s no similar angst with Woll, who made 29 saves after Samsonov got the hook.

“Outstanding,” Keefe said afterward. “These are not easy times to come into a game like that, and really, there is no margin for error. For him to stand his ground the way that he did was great.

“At practice this week, he was outstanding, competitive, and to see him step in and do the job for our guys was really huge. Another young guy coming up in a big moment for us.”

Once the Leafs are done in D.C., the five-game trip continues to Dallas on Thursday and Nashville on Saturday. There are no back-to-back sets, so there should be no urgency to use both goalies. 

Woll has his game in check. Samsonov does not. It’s clear who should be getting the bulk of the starts in the next while.

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KNIES TIMING

We’ll learn soon whether Matthew Knies’ first two goals can serve as a springboard into further production. 

With the quick, lethal shot he possesses, Knies demonstrated against Tampa that he doesn’t need much of an opportunity to put the puck in the net. That’s kind of the point, though. Knies has just eight shots on goal in five games. He is capable of more, and perhaps will get more if Keefe keeps him on a line with Max Domi.

“It gives me a bit more confidence,” Knies said of his two goals. “The chances were there earlier, but they were not clicking, weren’t executing. It gives me and Domi a little more confidence to have those two fall.”

 LOOSE LEAFS

Domi, who counts the Montreal Canadiens among his former teams, on Woll: “He’s great. He kind of reminds me of Carey Price, his demeanour, he is very calm and relaxed, on and off the ice, big body, moves really technically sound.” … For the first time in his 16 NHL seasons, Leafs captain John Tavares has at least one point in each of his first five games. With nine points (two goals and seven assists), Tavares somewhat quietly has been an offensive force in the early going … William Nylander’s goal in Tampa was the 181st of his career, tying him with Phil Kessel for 19th on the Leafs franchise list. Next in Nylander’s sights are Busher Jackson, Sid Smith and Ron Stewart, who each had 186 goals in a Toronto sweater … Ryan Reaves had just eight shifts and played five minutes six seconds against the Lightning, both personal lows in the fourth-line winger’s first five games with Toronto … The Leafs did not practise on Sunday. 

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