A save. A bloody save on the dang first shot.
Which is more than can be said for what the Maple Leafs had been getting from other goaltending quarters.
Which raises the question of intrigue: Maybe Jack Campbell should be Toronto’s No. 1?
The 29-year-old has shone in a supporting role with the Leafs, albeit in a small sample size limited by injury and then re-aggravated injury that nagged: 3-0-0 entering Saturday night’s rematch in back-to-backs with Calgary.
Merely — meh — perfect, blanking the Flames 2-0 as the Leafs halted their skidding.
A shutout when last Campbell was seen in the net three weeks ago — a one-and-gone — and shutout redux in his restoration. Cool, composed, agitation-quashing.
Thirty-one saves on the evening, some of them of the yowza variety.
At the horn, arms-around and sweet nothings in Campbell’s ears from Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
“They shared some really nice things. I’ll kind of just keep that to myself. It was sincere by them and it meant a lot to me. Basically they’re proud of my battle through adversity. It’s been a long road and a tough year, with the injury.
“It just makes me more motivated to play well next game.”
Surely that will be in Toronto’s next game, Thursday versus Ottawa.
While the players, to a man, profess confidence in their game, even as they’d reeled through a 1-6-0 nosedive since March 4, with nobody throwing any shade on Freddie Andersen — as if they ever would — there was palpably a heightened sense of urgency and, frankly, certitude with Campbell between the pipes.
In his previous five games, Andersen’s surrender tally has been 3, 5, 3, 4, 4.
Through the scuffling stretch — Andersen in the net for half a dozen — the team save percentage was a shabby .856.
While the stats are thin, the Leafs have actually played slightly better defensively in front of their ginger-haired stopper, as per (anal) analytics. But Andersen’s goals saved above average is minus-0.34 per game — the league median is minus-0.10 for qualified goalies — compared to Campbell’s 1.30, heading into Saturday. Goals against per game: 2.91 for Andersen, 1.33 for Campbell; save percentage per game: .897 for Andersen, .951 for Campbell.
It should be taken into account that the big Dane, who wasn’t even on the bench with Michael Hutchinson backing up, is likely not 100 per cent since returning from his own lower-body ailment. He’s acknowledged the struggle, though insisting it’s a passing woe. “I know I have the ability to be a great goalie in this league and help a team win a ton of hockey games,” Andersen said earlier in the week. “I think it’s just a matter of finding that confidence again. And I know it’s right there.”
But it wasn’t right there in Friday’s 4-3 loss to the Flames, despite Toronto being the better team on the ice — beaten on the first shot, 1:19 after the opening faceoff, and thrice more in the 14 shots that followed. In fact, the first three goals on seven shots. All of them were eminently stoppable, even through traffic and screens, with Anderson having difficulty tracking the disc.
“Try to be more aggressive,” he offered afterwards, in his soft-spoken way. “Work harder to get eyes on that puck. It’s a matter of putting things together, something that starts with me looking inward and doing what I can do to help the team.”
He’s not helping, is the thing. He’s hurting. And with the Leafs in a position to do something meaningful this season — historic even, 54 years since their last Stanley Cup hurrah — they shouldn’t be straddling the opportunity behind a goaltender having his worst career season, GAA inching upwards and save percentage downwards in each of the past three campaigns.
Most worrisome is that Andersen hasn’t risen to the challenge when it’s counted most: in playoff series, where brilliant saves have been interspersed with softie soul-crushing goals resulting from apparent lack of concentration. Indeed, Andersen has posted the second weakest playoff performance among netminders in goals saved above expected in the post-season since 2016-17. Lots of fodder there for detractors and doubters.
There’s no doubt that Andersen is beloved by his teammates. They’ve taken him home for Christmas and given him shelter during pre-season training bubbles. The evidence does not, however, support the contention made by GM Kyle Dubas in his mid-season media thingy Wednesday that Andersen always gropes his way back to the light.
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“I know it’s a major topic, but I think if Fred’s shown us anything in the 4 1/2 seasons that he’s been with us, it’s that he has a tremendous ability to gather himself when he may not be playing to the standards that he sets for himself. If you go back through each of his seasons, any time where Fred has found himself in a bit of a rut he’s been able to pull himself out of it, and that’s (what we expect to) see from him as we move again.
“I had a lot of faith that Fred over time has really shown us that he’s able to find his way out of it, and that he will.”
This is a mutant shortened year, though, where the season can get away from a team, even so talented and dominant a squad as the Leafs, lickety-split. Losing slumps, a given in any sport, are extra ominous, particularly in multiple-game sets against the same opponent. While other teams may have been in awe over Toronto’s slick start, they’re clearly setting a challenge for themselves now when confronting the Leafs.
“What we’re finding is, we’re getting teams’ best every night,” Jason Spezza had observed earlier on a day where he would open scoring for Toronto, only the second time in eight games that Leafs had jumped on the scoreboard first. “We got off to the start we did, it gets everybody’s attention. That shows teams respect us. You’re going to see their best because of it.”
In such circumstances, the Leafs deserve a goalie who will not only steal games but, for the love of God, execute the unexceptional saves, and the nervy shutdowns. Andersen appears to have misplaced that nerve and his teammates were markedly jittery across this spell when the puck entered the Toronto zone, unable to insulate Andersen from danger. Of course, on slipshod goals, they haven’t perceived the danger either.
Coach Sheldon Keefe, pre-game, was enthusiastically pumping Campbell’s tires, palpably happy to have his putative No. 2 with a 1.33 GAA back in the cage for the first time since shutting out the Oilers on Feb. 27. “Highly competitive. Never out of the play. Big saves at key times.”
Words he’s not been able to speak about Andersen.
Teammates were equally ardent about a goalie who’s had to navigate the stop-go from injury dragging on, yet endless buoyant and mentally sturdy.
Spezza: “He’s just a positive guy. He knows that’s a key to him, to stay upbeat. He’s always been a guy that works really hard. He spreads it in the locker room. He’s had days where he’s been down and frustrated, but he tries to hide it and come with a great attitude.”
Alex Kerfoot: “He’s always lightening up the room. Any adversity that comes his way, he’s able to handle it. He’s the same guy every day at the rink and he’s a pleasure to be around. He’s been rock solid.”
Keefe, some more: “Great energy, both in the crease and when he comes to the bench to drink water in timeouts. Players enjoy that about him. That’s really what you’re looking for from a guy who doesn’t lay that much. When he goes in, he gives the group confidence.”
Those are the attributes of a No. 1.
The Leafs cannot barrelhouse toward the playoffs with a crisis of faith in Freddie.