Ilya Samsonov will remain between the pipes as the Maple Leafs kick off their post-Christmas Western U.S. road trip with a stop in St. Louis (8 p.m. EST, Sportsnet Ontario).

After a stretch of three starts played every other night when he first returned from injury while Ilya Samsonov was out, the Leafs have been fairly conservative with Matt Murray’s workload. Since November 20th, he’s played eight games, with multiple breaks of five or more days in between starts. Overall, the balance of the starts in the Leafs‘ net has shaken out like so through 34 games: 13 games for Samsonov (14 after tonight), 12 for Murray, and 10 for Erik Källgren.

Samsonov and Murray posting nearly identically strong numbers — .924 and .925 save percentage, with goals saved above expected values of +7.7 and +7.9, respectively — has thus far put the Leafs in the advantageous position of being able to use rest as a weapon, which is something they’re hoping will remain the case heading into the second half of the season and into the playoffs.

Murray is expected to start on Thursday in Arizona. With Samsonov remaining between the pipes and Rasmus Sandin and Morgan Rielly sidelined for at least one more game, the Leafs‘ lineup will remain unchanged from their win over the Flyers before the break.

Tonight’s opponent, St. Louis, is entering a critical stretch between the holiday break and the All-Star break that will go a long way in determining which direction GM Doug Armstrong takes at the trade deadline (a subject of interest to Leafs fans who see pending-UFA Ryan O’Reilly as an intriguing C/LW target). A .500 record of 16-16-2 with a -19 goal differential is far below the expectation level for a veteran team coming off of a 49-win season. The Blues are currently five points behind the pace in the wildcard race in the West.

Blues teams have historically been known for strong second halves to their seasons, though, and there were some signs before the break of a possible turnaround in fortunes with points in six of their last seven games. St. Louis went 38-13-6 once the calendar flipped to 2022 last season, and of course, they famously went from dead last in the league as of January 1st of 2019 to a 30-11-5 record the rest of the way, culminating in a Stanley Cup championship.

That said, the underlying numbers are not necessarily strong indicators of a positive regression to come; the Blues are bottom 10 in the NHL in shot attempt percentage, shot percentage, scoring chance percentage, and expected goal percentage at five-on-five.

Head to Head: Leafs vs. Blues

In the season-to-date statistics, the Leafs hold the advantage over the Blues in four out of five offensive categories and five out of five defensive categories.

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on the decision to start Ilya Samsonov tonight:

I looked at the sample of work, particularly the injuries both guys have had, and the type of injury Matt had with a groin injury. I just latched on to the fact that giving him a bit more time to get back into the net and be ready for Arizona made sense.

It gives Ilya a chance to get right back in. He hasn’t been happy with his starts the last couple of times out. He gets another chance to get right back out there instead of having to sit around and wait for it.

Keefe on the status of Rasmus Sandin and Morgan Rielly as they near a return to the lineup:

Both guys look like they’re moving well and doing well. It’s a step for them today. I suspect we’ll see them both in practice tomorrow and then make a determination for the remainder of the trip from there.

Blues defenseman Colton Parayko on the need to carry over his team’s form from its recent 3-1-1 road trip back on home ice:

A big homestand here to start after the break. Points are crucial. Everyone knows where we are in the standings and how it is. The good thing is that we know when we play the way we have to, we know we are a good team.

Parayko on the key to shutting down Mitch Marner and the Leafs’ formidable attack:

Knowing where he is and when he is on the ice. A very good and talented player. They have a lot of skill and speed over there. They have been playing very well, too. We need to make sure we are on top of their players and make it hard to come into our zone by getting in front of guys and slowing them down that way.

Parayko on the loss of Torey Krug to LTIR:

A very good player for us and a big part of our backend in all situations — obviously, the power play and the puck movement. He plays a lot of minutes and is a big piece of our team. It’s tough. The next guy up is going to have to step up, and we’re going to have to keep moving forward. The points are big.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#19 Calle Järnkrok – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #64 David Kämpf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #29 Pontus Holmberg – #28 Joey Anderson

#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
#18 Jordie Benn – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#78 TJ Brodie – #25 Conor Timmins

Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#30 Matt Murray

Extras: Dryden Hunt, Wayne Simmonds, Mac Hollowell
: Rasmus Sandin, Nick Robertson, Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Victor Mete

St. Louis Blues Projected Lines

#20 Brandon Saad – #90 Ryan O’Reilly – #25 Jordan Kyrou
#89 Pavel Buchnevich  – #18 Robert Thomas – #91 Vladimir Tarasenko
#49 Ivan Barbashev – #10 Brayden Schenn – #52 Noel Acciari
#65 Alexei Toropchenko – #22 Logan Brown – #17 Josh Leivo

#4 Nick Leddy – #55 Colton Parayko
#43 Calle Rosen – #72 Justin Faulk
#77 Niko Mikkola – #41 Robert Bortuzzo

Starter: #50 Jordan Binnington
#1 Thomas Greiss

Injured/Out: Scott Perunovich, Marco Scandella, Torey Krug