TORONTO - The Maple Leafs’ net still belongs to Jack Campbell.
Coach Sheldon Keefe named Campbell as Toronto’s starter for Game 1 of its upcoming first-round playoff series against Montreal, which opens on Thursday.
That clarity dismisses any notion that Frederik Andersen’s recent return from a two-month long absence nursing a knee injury would unseat Campbell from the starting role he’s carried most of this season.
“[Campbell’s] done a terrific job,” Keefe told reporters on Sunday. “Just with his results that he’s gotten for us, both in wins and saves, and in the confidence that he's built for himself and then in turn, the confidence that our team has him. That's his part of it, and the other part of it is the circumstances surrounding Fred. Fred hasn't played and in that time Jack has played extremely well so he's definitely deserving of the opportunity to be in Game 1.”
Campbell is 17-3-2 for the Leafs this season, with a .921 save percentage and 2.15 goals-against average. The 29-year-old started the year on a historic 11-0-0 run and positioned himself as Toronto’s go-to goalie after Andersen was felled by a recurring knee problem on March 20.
Andersen was shut down until earlier this month, when he played a game and a half for the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. The netminder made 46 saves on 52 shots during his conditioning stint and graduated to start in Toronto’s penultimate regular season game against Ottawa. Andersen stopped 24 of 28 shots in the 4-3 overtime loss, and finished the year with a 13-8-3 record, .895 save percentage and 2.96 goals-against average.
This is Andersen’s fifth season now with the Leafs, and he’s started all 25 playoff games over that stretch with a 10-14-0 record. But despite that history, and the fact Andersen proved he was physically healthy enough to play in this postseason too, Keefe didn’t hesitate in who to tap as Toronto’s starter moving forward.
“It [was] a tough decision as it relates to Fred, but not an overly difficult decision as it relates to Jack and the effort that he's put in,” Keefe said. “Frederik has been a big part of our team and has been the guy in the playoffs. But [now] to have that confidence and support underneath Jack with someone of Frederik's ability and experience [is great] for our depth and the confidence in our goaltending has grown significantly here.”
The Leafs’ blueline depth could also get a boost shortly in the form of Zach Bogosian. The veteran has been out since April 20 with a shoulder injury and appeared at practice on Sunday for the first time since then.
Bogosian wore a red non-contact sweater for the session, but there’s reason to believe he might not need it for long.
“We'll just continue to progress, but I certainly think he'll be an option in the [Montreal] series,” Keefe said. “It’s a very good sign for us to have him on the ice here today. I haven't gotten the report of how it all went medically but just from what I saw, he looked good and was doing a lot and was eager to be out there with the team.”
Also on the road to recovery has been forward Riley Nash. Toronto acquired the veteran via trade from Columbus in April, but a sprained knee has so far stalled his Leafs’ debut.
That will change for playoff time. Because Toronto’s schedule was extended due to the Vancouver Canucks’ Covid-19 outbreak in March, Nash had extra time to heal. And now that the Leafs and Canadiens will be among the last NHL teams to start their postseason series, Nash has used those extras days to get up to speed on the ice.
Keefe currently has Nash slotted onto the third line with Ilya Mikheyev and Alex Kerfoot. Toronto’s coach is counting on Nash’s 578 games of regular season experience - plus 32 more in the playoffs - to make up for any lack of familiarity he might feel in the Leafs’ lineup early on.
“We're going to get him involved right away and just rely upon the fact that he's a very smart player, very experienced guy in the NHL and the playoffs in particular,” Keefe said. “You trust that he's going to be able to fit right in. And with the skill set he has in terms of his ability to just be very responsible and consistent defensively, that brings a different look and a different option within our bottom-six and I really like that.”
One last change the Leafs are trying out this week in practice in new power play groups. Toronto has been abysmal on the man advantage for weeks, sitting 30th in the NHL at 5-for-73 (6.9 per cent) since March 11. That stretch has been so poor, the Leafs’ power play has actually given up as many goals to the other team shorthanded as its scored (5).
To try and ignite things, Keefe disassembled his usual top unit of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly to create two new groups. Now it’s Rasmus Sandin with Matthews, Marner, Joe Thornton and Zach Hyman, and then Rielly with Tavares, Nylander, Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds.
Toronto still has at least two more practice days before Thursday’s Game 1 to get things straight, but Keefe had hoped to originally use these units last month before Hyman sprained his MCL on April 18. Better late than never, though.
“We just wanted to give that a look,” Keefe said of the changes. “It's something that we went to at the start of training camp and the regular season, had a lot of success with it, and in a lot of ways we're looking at [playoffs] as a new season, a new opportunity to start fresh again. We haven't seen the last of [those big] four guys together. We just want to give ourselves increased options as we go into a playoff series where there's going to be a lot of back and forth happening.”