The Toronto Maple Leafs have the second best record in the Eastern Conference, and they’ve had their goalie to thank on a number of nights.
As the Leafs stumbled through the second half of October, losing four of their last five games of the month, it wasn’t quite clear how the team would respond.
Toronto had hit their first skid of the season and the fanbase was clamouring for answers.
But the biggest question mark was undoubtedly with the man in net — starting goaltender Frederik Andersen. It was never a question of his competence or ability, but rather when he’d return to the form that the Leafs had become accustomed to in his first season with the team.
In 11 appearances in October, Andersen allowed 38 goals, sporting an ugly .896 save percentage along the way.
A week into December, all that has changed.
Andersen picked up a statement victory on Wednesday night against the Calgary Flames, making it his 16th win of the season in 25 appearances. With a season-high 47 saves in regulation and overtime, Andersen earned the 2-1 W in the shootout after stopping a trio of Flames shooters.
Now 29 games into the season, the 28-year-old goalie is showing when he’s at his best, he deserves full credit for pushing the Leafs from simply a good hockey team, into one of the league’s best.
Since that ugly start in October, Andersen’s managed to step his game up, proving his value as the team’s regular starter. In the 15 games he’s played since November 1, he’s given up two goals or less a total of ten times, including a pair of back-to-back shutouts against the New Jersey Devils and Montreal Canadiens. Not surprisingly, he was named the NHL’s second star of the month in November.
The key thing with Danish netminder’s performance this year is that more than anything else, there’s been a number of games Toronto’s needed him to be at his best.
The Leafs have already eked out eight one-goal wins this year, due in large part to Andersen’s ability to keep the puck out of the net in the game’s final moments. The Leafs had a 14-8-15 record in one goal games last year.
You’d be fooling no one if you tried claiming the Leafs had the league’s best defensive unit, emphasized by the fact they’ve given up 35 shots on net or more on 12 occasions this season.
But on the other side of the coin, most teams in the NHL don’t have the firepower to play the run and gun, high-event fast-paced hockey the Leafs typically play. Against Calgary, the Leafs netted their 100th goal of the year, one of just three teams to hit that mark so far this season.
First Star: Freddie Andersen
Second Star: Freddie Andersen
Third Star: Freddie Andersen
Guy I Love: Freddie Andersen
Leafs MVP: Freddie Andersen
Damn Handsome Man: Freddie Andersen
Goalie Of Your Dreams: Freddie Andersen
Thank All Sweet Goodness For: Freddie Andersen
— Daryl Brewer (@BrewGuy) December 7, 2017
On the second year of a five-year contract, it’s pretty clear that Leafs management has committed to Andersen as ‘the guy’ with a franchise that had been overrun with goalie controversies during previous years.
Part of this is due to the fact that in Andersen’s time in Toronto, the Leafs haven’t really felt all that comfortable with their backup goaltending situation, emphasized by the fact that Curtis McElhinney’s hit the ice just four times this season. Last year, it was a mixture of Jhonas Enroth, McElhinney, and an emergency call-up Antoine Bibeau handling the No. 2 goalie role, but Andersen still appeared in 66 games.
While Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard have both put up solid numbers with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, neither has been called up to the big club yet this season.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) December 7, 2017
The obvious caveat with running Andersen so much is the risk of injury and fatigue. Mike Babcock is playing with fire by playing him so much, and it might come back to bite the Leafs if they’re unable to find a consistent No. 2 option further down the stretch. This stretch of great goaltending might not last forever, especially if Toronto continues to allow a high quantity of shots against on a regular basis.
But when the Leafs have needed him most, at least so far, Frederik Andersen’s stepped up in the biggest way. He’s been thrown a tough challenge, and been able to steal a few hockey games while rediscovering his ability to be consistent on nights when the Leafs have been playing well. And for that, he deserves all the praise in the world.