Frederik Andersen is providing the budding Maple Leafs with the type of goaltending not seen in Toronto since Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour, and with six games left in the season that’s exactly what the doctor ordered.
I must admit, I nearly shed a tear at the beginning of the year when I saw a formidable No. 31 between the pipes for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s been 15 years since I sat in front of my television and became mesmerized by Curtis Joseph, as he led a workmanlike Leafs team to the playoffs year after year.
The Leafs were never a dominant team during those years, but they were a good team with a great goalie. I quickly fell in love with Joseph’s ability to steal a period, a game, or even a full series for the Leafs when perhaps the team didn’t bring their A-game.
Soon Joseph moved on to the Detroit Red Wings (I’m still not over it), and in came Ed Belfour. Despite a rocky start in Toronto, Belfour went on to solidify the goaltender position for another three years, albeit his third year was one to forget. As a Leafs fan during this period, I didn’t realize how spoiled I had been.
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With Felix Potvin first, then Joseph, then Belfour, I was gifted with the opportunity to watch three of the greatest goalies of that era suit up for the Leafs. What transpired in the Leafs crease over the next decade could realistically be the plot of the new Nightmare on Elm Street film.
First, the Leafs traded one of their young goalie prospects, Tuukka Rask, to the Boston Bruins and kept the other, Justin Pogge. That didn’t work. The goalie they traded for, Andrew Raycroft, didn’t live up to his Calder Trophy-winning expectations and was soon shipped out of town. The goalie carousel would continue for another several years with Vesa Toskala (AHHH!) and Jonas Gustavsson all taking a run at the helm.
After a five-year stint from James Reimer, Leafs brass thought it was time for a change … again. They traded for Frederik Andersen. I had seen Andersen play in Anaheim and I was thrilled with this deal right from the start, but the praise didn’t come without some hesitation.
Some could have argued that Andersen failed to truly snatch the number one slot from John Gibson in Anaheim. Others could have pointed out that Anaheim might have shielded him more than the rebuilding Leafs would be able to. I didn’t buy it. I felt the Leafs had found their first true number one goalie since Belfour, and Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello seemed to agree with me in saying:
“I think he has to know that we feel that he is our No. 1 goaltender and that the support is there, the confidence is there and the commitment is there.”
Then the season started.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Andersen struggled out of the gate, having missed training camp due to an injury he suffered at the World Cup qualifying tournament. The young Leafs weren’t giving him much help either, and wins weren’t coming easily.
Then Andersen completely flipped the script and went on an absolute tear, leading the Leafs back into the playoff discussion, a discussion that was scoffed at before the season started.
As we fast forward to today, Yahoo Sports tells us that Andersen has started 62 games, the most in his young career by far (he started 53 games with Anaheim in ’14-’15). In those 62 starts he sports a 31-15-14 record. His save percentage continues to climb and sits at .919 as we speak. His goals against average is 2.64.
What I find most impressive about the Danish tender’s season is his most recent streak. According to NHL.com he has allowed only 18 goals in his last ten games, perhaps the most crucial 10 game span of the Leafs’ season. During those ten games Andersen’s record is an impressive 7-1-1 and he has allowed more than two goals in just one of those starts. That is a surefire recipe for success, especially for this Leafs team which has little issue scoring goals.
The exclamation point may have came on Thursday night as the Leafs visited Nashville. For two periods the Leafs stifled the surging Predators, who had scored three or more goals for 12 consecutive games on home ice. Taking two points away from a road game in Nashville at this point in the season would be huge, and for two periods the Leafs had built a 2-0 lead.
The third period took a different turn, and suddenly the Predators were sifting through the Leafs’ defence with ease. Andersen delivered what may have been his finest period of the year, stopping 12 of 13 shots. His only hiccup was a Filip Forsberg snipe, which was preceded by the parting of the Blue Sea that was the Leafs defence.
He ensured that this game didn’t get away from the Leafs, and that’s a goaltending trait that Toronto has been sorely lacking for a long time now. Andersen has similarly held down the fort in this fashion a few times this year already, and he’s sure to do it again.
Even good teams need their goalies to steal them a game from time to time. More often than not that’s exactly what makes great teams great to begin with. Without that type of goaltending, it’s difficult to have a chance to win every night in today’s NHL.
The Leafs have six games left, and they still sit four points up on the Tampa Bay Lightning, their closest threat. This is in large part due to the play of Andersen, who is ensuring the Leafs don’t back their way into a playoff spot, or fall out of contention altogether. In fact, with their recent stretch of success, the Leafs now find themselves only two points behind Ottawa for second place in the Atlantic Division and … HOME ICE IN THE PLAYOFFS! Oh Lord, have mercy.
In a season when all the praise is rightfully centred around the Leafs’ ridiculous rookie crop, Andersen deserves some credit for giving that group the confidence to play with the speed and aggressiveness that has made them successful. For the first time in a long time, I love what I’m seeing from the Leafs’ number one goalie. I love the poise, I love the confidence, and I certainly love the wins.
Oh, and I love that he wears No. 31. CuJo, you’re still my boy!