Keith Petruzzelli was seated at his dressing stall in Belleville, Ont., on Saturday night, a night like most others in the American Hockey League. The 23-year-old had just made 26 saves in the Toronto Marlies’ 5-2 victory over the Senators when head coach Greg Moore made a surprise announcement.
The 6-foot-5 goalie was about to sign a two-year entry-level contract with the Maple Leafs and was to report to the team in North Carolina on Sunday.
Petruzzelli had not heard that Ilya Samsonov had sustained a knee injury that very same evening in a contest against the Bruins. He sat there, thunderstruck, as his teammates roared and then mobbed him.
“That was literally the first time I found out anything about it,” Petruzzelli said after the Maple Leafs beat the Carolina Hurricanes. “I was just playing a game in Belleville. I had no idea until that moment.”
Petruzzelli quickly hopped on a bus for a two-hour ride to Toronto, gathered some belongings from his apartment and headed to the airport for an early-morning flight to Raleigh, N.C. A few hours later, wearing jersey No. 80, he watched his first game from an NHL bench.
“It has been a little crazy,” Petruzzelli said, hair a tad askew, eyes a bit wide. “I haven’t gotten a lot of sleep and there has been a lot of travel and a lot of excitement. It was super exciting just to be here and take it all in.”
Petruzzelli flew back to Toronto on the team’s charter following its 3-1 victory and at least for now will serve as the backup to Erik Kallgren. The club had nowhere else to turn after Samsonov went down with Matt Murray still on the mend from an adductor strain and Joseph Woll recovering from shoulder surgery.
The only other goalie the Maple Leafs had under contract was Dennis Hildeby. The 21-year-old was drafted in the fourth round this summer and is currently playing in the Swedish League.
“Certainly, [Keith’s] signing is probably expedited given our situation, but he’s a guy that our organization has believed in and, frankly, the way it was going his signing was somewhat inevitable,” Sheldon Keefe, the Toronto head coach said Sunday.
Samsonov was to undergo an MRI on Sunday to determine the extent of the damage caused when he fell over backward while trying to stop a penalty shot against Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins. Samsonov has been placed on the injured list already, however, so he will miss at least a week no matter what the imaging tests show.
Which means that Petruzzelli will get an inside look at the big show for a few days at least. Kallgren, who has stopped 36 of 37 shots since he replaced Samsonov in the third period against Boston, will start against Vegas at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday and likely again on Friday when Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins pay a visit.
A different goalie will be needed on Saturday against Vancouver at home in the second of a back to back. That could be Murray, who has been out since Oct. 15, or perhaps even Petruzzelli.
“I am just here to play and to have a good day every day,” Petruzzelli said. He is 185 pounds and gangly like a stork. “Wherever things take me, they’ll take me.”
A third-round draft pick of the Red Wings in 2017, Petruzzelli comes from Massachusetts and played for four seasons at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. Quinnipiac is an NCAA Division I team and a member of ECAC Hockey, one of the toughest conferences in college hockey. Other members include Clarkson, Dartmouth, Harvard and Princeton.
While there, Petruzzelli was the starter in his last two seasons and went 38-18-6 and in 2021 was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, the Heisman Trophy for NCAA hockey. He spent most of last season with the Newfoundland Growlers of the ECHL and has gone 9-1 in limited action in the AHL, including 6-0 this season with a .922 save percentage.
His number are impressive but it is quite a leap from the Rock to the NHL in just one year.
“It has been a whirlwind but it has been great,” Petruzzelli said Sunday of the sudden callup. “I put a lot of work in my whole life. It is a really special moment the way it was done [Saturday] night.”
Petruzzelli said there were detractors when he came out of the NCAA.
“There were definitely some doubts about me coming out of college,” he said. “It’s really exciting for me to prove that stuff wrong and showcase my abilities. I think I’m ready. We’ll find out.”