WASHINGTON — Ilya Samsonov insists he’s a buddy of Alex Ovechkin and of many in the Capitals’ room.
That doesn’t mean he wants to be fishing any of Ovie’s milestone pucks out of his net Saturday should the latter tie or break Gordie Howe’s mark of second-most goals in NHL history.
The chance of that happening on Hockey Night In Canada, the two goals needed to pass Mr. Hockey’s 801 and clear the field except Wayne Gretzky’s 894, is down to Samsonov shining in his first game back here since signing with the Maple Leafs.
Samsonov was available for Toronto because the Caps didn’t qualify him, and also dropped Vitek Vanecek, to ink Stanley Cup champion Darcy Kuemper from Colorado and Charlie Lindgren as back-up.
That Samsonov returns as the league’s save percentage leader, .939 as of Friday among goalies with 10 or more games played this season, and Kuemper 18th at .916, should be multi-motivation.
Yet reading Samsonov’s true feelings can be tricky, with his combination of dry wit and broken English.
“I have lots of friends on that team. I’m not a bad guy,” he quipped Thursday in New York after backing up Matt Murray to be fresh for the Caps. “For sure it’s a big game, special for me. My first time back to (Capital One Arena) to see the Washington fans. I remember my first game there (beating the Islanders 2-1 on Oct. 19, 2019), a big step in the NHL.
“A lot of good memories the first year. Not for (the last) couple of years. But this is life.”
He insists he isn’t distracted with thoughts of stopping Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov or the other three Russians on Washington’s roster, but assured he and Ovie were bonded, at least by language.
The Great Eight can be gregarious, but he’s also 37 and doesn’t hang with the 25-year-olds in Samsonov’s age group.
Ovechkin also has some polarizing pro-Vladimir Putin political views that set him apart, even from some countrymen.
A first-round pick of Washington’s, Samsonov was promoted quickly when Braden Holtby departed and Henrik Lundqvist wasn’t healthy enough to make an NHL comeback. But Samsonov had various bouts of inconsistency and COVID-19 issues that kept him from securing the No. 1 role long-term.
The Leafs took a chance, impressed with his playoff resume among other things, betting he’d be a hungry No. 2 behind Murray. And when Murray was hurt after one start, Samsonov excelled before his own knee injury. Together, it has been a good internal competition, both contributing to a 15-game streak in which the Leafs secured at least a point that ended Thursday.
“I’m so excited,” Samsonov said of his current situation. “I believe we (the Leafs) are good. I believe (in) my teammates.
“I’m in a good spot. But we’ll see in June in playoffs. Right now, it doesn’t matter.”
Vanecek went to New Jersey and has been a huge part of the Devils’ success, appearing in 20 games so far for the Metro Division leaders. While Kuemper has not been dominating, he and Lindgren have been steady in posting a record of 6-3-1 in their past 10 games.
Coach Peter Laviolette seems pleased at the way it has worked out for all the goalies involved.
“Our guys know him,” Laviolette said of Samsonov after Friday’s practice. “We’re going to try to figure a way to put pucks behind him if we can.
“Vanecek and Sammy were young goalies who did a good job for us, but to pick up a guy with Darcy’s pedigree and Charlie’s done really well, we’re happy as well.”