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Rookie goaltender Joseph Woll making crease case with Toronto Maple Leafs

TORONTO — Joseph Woll saved his best for last.

The Maple Leafs rookie goaltender had already made two huge stops in overtime when Kraken forward Jordan Eberle appeared on the lip of the crease with the game on his stick.

Woll went full stretch — "just trying to do everything I can" — to deny that chance as well, giving him 37 saves through regulation and the 3-on-3 extra period before making two more in the shootout as Toronto secured a 4-3 victory over Seattle.

"A lot of fun when the game's on the line," he said in the locker room Thursday night. "You have the opportunity to step up."

Woll sat below Ilya Samsonov on the netminding depth chart when the Leafs arrived for training camp in September.

No more. The calm, cool 25-year-old has stepped up.

Woll owns a .939 save percentage over his last three starts — including consecutive shootout wins this week — to build on a solid open to his campaign.

"My feelings on it doesn't really matter, but it's his teammates," Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe. "They feel it back there. When we make a mistake, he's there. He's competing. He's growing, it seems like, every single start.

"That's an important piece for our team."

Woll is 8-5-0 in 13 games overall, including 11 starts, with a .917 save percentage and a 2.74 goals-against average. The St. Louis area product was a third-round pick in 2016 — the same year Toronto selected Auston Matthews first overall.

It's taken Woll significantly longer to make an impact thanks to three seasons at Boston College, time in the American Hockey League, and some injury trouble, but he's now staking his claim to the Leafs crease.

"I try to approach each game the same," Woll said. "Regardless of the outcome, I try to keep the same mindset and make sure I'm learning.

"I've been fortunate to have some good outcomes here. Just trying to keep my eyes moving forward."

Woll has been a steadying presence for a team working through some defensive issues and three injured blueliners in Mark Giordano (broken finger), John Klingberg (hip) and Timothy Liljegren (high ankle sprain).

"Confidence," Keefe said of what he saw from his goalie after Toronto blew a 3-1 lead in Thursday's final period. "He gives up the two in the third, and he's right there to make the next saves."

Woll had 11 regular-season games under his belt before being thrust into the second round of last spring's playoffs against Florida when Samsonov went down with a neck injury.

Toronto crashed out in five games to the Panthers, but Woll wasn't the problem, stopping 64 of the 68 shots he faced in two starts.

"Great all year, great last year," Leafs defenceman Conor Timmins said. "Just a stud."

Samsonov, who went to arbitration with Toronto before signing US$3.35-million contract for this season, is 4-1-3 with .878 save percentage and 3.58 GAA in 2023-24.

Woll's three-year, $2.3-million deal expires after the 2024-25 campaign.

Samsonov has shown glimpses of the player who took over the No. 1 job from Matt Murray last season, but he's also appeared completely lost at times.

Woll, meanwhile, has been steady — and getting results — with Toronto (12-6-3) set host the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins (15-4-3) on Saturday.

"He's been outstanding," Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said. "We've kind of made it tough on him. We're putting some extra miles on him.

"But for him to hang in there for us and play great is awesome."

Samsonov hasn't been forgotten as he works on getting his game right.

But Woll is the man in the middle — at least for now.

"To see Joseph growing like this … it's great," Keefe said. "Clearly he's the backbone of us getting these points here of late."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2023.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press