TORONTO – It’s been a hard, weird week for Frederik Andersen, and his Maple Leafs teammates were determined to see it end on a high note.
Andersen had been yanked in two previous games before Friday’s matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers, when his continuing struggles helped put the Leafs, wearing their throwback green and white Toronto St. Patricks jerseys, in a 5-2 deficit by midway through the second period. Toronto rallied from there for its goalie, battling back to a 7-6 victory that halted a two-game losing streak.
“The guys did a heck of a job for Freddie. Got a win for Freddie,” said coach Mike Babcock. “He’s done that a bunch for us this year, and it’s just pay back and now we can move on. We were going to win for Freddie, just [had to] keep doing good things.”
Their netminder has been the Leafs’ most important player all season, earning his way into the NHL’s Vezina Trophy conversation on the strength of a sensational year where he’s tied for second in the league in wins (34), one back of Vegas' veteran Marc-Andre Fleury. But this has been the least effective stretch of games for Andersen in recent memory, and no one needed the confidence boost of a victory on Friday more desperately than him.
Andersen’s slide began in earnest during Monday’s 6-2 loss to Tampa, when he gave up four goals by early in the second and was pulled for Garret Sparks. Same thing on Wednesday, when the Leafs went down 4-0 after the first period to Chicago and Andersen was again replaced by Sparks in an eventual 5-4 defeat.
By the time Shayne Gostisbehere had made it 5-2 Philadelphia on Friday, Andersen had ceded 13 goals on the last 52 shots he faced for a brutal .730 save percentage. A pair of goals earlier by James van Riemsdyk both beat Andersen five-hole from close range, while Jakub Voracek and Radko Gudas scored on an unscreened Andersen who was just a step behind the shot.
“It’s seems like everything is going against me defensively right now, even things that aren’t really dangerous find a way to be somewhat dangerous,” Andersen explained. “It’s frustrating, but you just have to try and fight through it and hopefully it’ll turn if I keep working.”
The Leafs were playing fairly well in front of Andersen all night, with goals from Patrick Marleau and Zach Hyman past Brian Elliott keeping them afloat, and there was no way Babcock could pull Andersen again with Sparks already scheduled to start the second half of Toronto’s back-to-back in Ottawa on Saturday. It fell to the rest of the Leafs to pick up for their goalie.
Toronto responded for Andersen with five unanswered scores, two from Jake Muzzin, one from Martin Marincin and two from Auston Matthews, to pull ahead 7-5 with less than three minutes to play in regulation. All Andersen had to do was survive until the final buzzer. But he still made things difficult, nearly putting the puck in his own net on two occasions, and then failing to track van Riemsdyk’s third goal with 74 seconds left that brought Philadelphia within one.
Still, the final minutes were arguably Andersen’s finest hour, complete with a couple timely stops on Travis Konecny and Gostisbehere that kept the Flyers from getting an equalizer. Toronto had outshot Philadelphia 51-29 by the end, the second time this season the Leafs have put up 50 or more shots on net.
“I’m happy to see the guys battle back for me and help me out getting the two points and it gives us another day to keep working it out,” Andersen said. “I was just trying to fight through it and glad to come up with some saves at the end there when they were pressing to get the tying goal. You just try to work through [the difficulties] and hopefully it’ll turn.”
Andersen’s teammates wouldn’t hear of the blame being totally on him for this recent spell, but are happy to carry him when times are tough.
“He’s saved us so many times; we definitely owed him one,” said Matthews. “He’s been a brick wall for us all year. These last couple games, they’re not completely on him. I’m sure he’d like to have some of those back, but for us, that’s our guy, and we have to play better for him.”
While that may be true, Toronto’s hopes of a long playoff run will hinge directly on Andersen re-capturing that which made him so spectacular for much of the season. The victory over Philadelphia did move the Leafs a step closer to home ice advantage in the first round of the postseason, by cutting Boston’s lead for second in the Atlantic Division to only two points. And Babcock spoke before and after Friday’s game about what will be most critical for his struggling goaltender when that postseason arrives.
“The mental toughness you need to go deep in the playoffs, you just have to have a belief in yourself,” Babcock said. “I believe in Freddie a lot. Our guys believe in him. He’s a real good man, takes things personal. You have to believe every day you come to the rink it’s going to turn out right and you’re going to be great. Here’s a little test for him; I think these tests are great.”
Like any dutiful student of the game, Andersen is fine with learning the lessons, but is also undeniably eager to turn the page on what’s next. Hopefully there he’ll be more driver than passenger for the Leafs in their pursuit of a strong finish to this regular season.
“I’d like to handle [this stretch] better, get out of it quicker,” Andersen admitted. “As a goalie, you’d love to win 2-0 every night, but it just doesn’t happen,” Andersen admitted. “So you keep battling and keep trying to be an upbeat personality and have a good attitude about it.”
Matthews, Nylander rekindle spark
It’s taken nearly four months, but Matthews says he and William Nylander have finally re-established their chemistry.
The forwards were linemates the last two seasons, but despite Babcock’s multiple attempts to play them on line together this year, there was no spark. Until now.
Perhaps it was the lack of confidence Nylander played with in returning from his contract holdout in December, perhaps it was just the time he missed in the two months that preceded his return slowing him down. But whatever the reason, Nylander has looked nothing like he does now with Matthews until Kasperi Kapanen’s concussion reunited them on a line with Andreas Johnsson last Monday.
On Friday, theirs was the Leafs’ most energetic line from the outset, and showed off better timing offensively despite their line being on the ice for two of the Flyers’ first four goals.
Really, Matthews’ group was just building towards a third period where it really shone, and pushed Toronto over the finish line.
Late in regulation, Nylander, who already had one assist on Marleau’s first period goal, made perhaps his best play of the season, digging out a puck from behind the Flyers net and sending it to Matthews in front for the go-ahead score. Matthews followed that up with another goal 2:21 later.
That pair of goals was long overdue for the centre in Friday's game. Matthews thought he scored late in the first period to give Toronto a 2-1 lead, but Elliott's net was found to be off its moorings and the goal was called back.
Regardless, Matthews got his goals eventually, and the Flyers had been one of only two teams Matthews had never scored against in his career; now justCalgary remains on that list for the 21-year-old.
When Kapanen returns, it seems likely Babcock will contiue to ride with Nylander and Matthews together, provided they can keep the spark alive.
Matthews finished Friday’s game with a game-high eight shots on goal, while Nylander added four and their line combined for 67 per cent possession.
Starts still in question
When Voracek got Philadelphia on the board midway through the first period, it marked the seventh time in eight home games the Leafs have given up the game’s first goal, and to that point they’d been outscored in the first period of their last three games 7-0.
Killer instinct on point
If not for some exceptional work by Toronto’s penalty kill, the team’s comeback may not have been possible, and they continued to excel well into the third period.
The Leafs’ first kill came up after Muzzin’s second goal to bring the Leafs within one, leaving Mitch Marner and Hyman to lead the way corralling pucks deep in the defensive zone and keeping the Flyers from generating many looks on Andersen at the other end.
The second kill was midway through the third, after Toronto had tied the game and was trying not to lose their hard-won momentum. Again it was Marner, Hyman and Nikita Zaitsev making the timely plays to hold Philadelphia mostly at bay.
Considering how close Hyman came to missing Friday’s game with the flu, it ended up being a game-changer for the Leafs that their top offensive killer was available. Toronto finished the game 2-for-2 on the kill.
Defensive details on blast
The Leafs had the second-best faceoff win percentage in the NHL at 52.8 going into Friday’s game, but are 25th in the league in defensive zone faceoff win percentage at 51 per cent. That telling stat was on display against Philadelphia, where Vorachek, Radko Gudas and van Riemsdyk scored off lost defensive zone draws, two of which were lost by Matthews.
Toronto finished Friday's game ahead overall in the face-off dot at 57 per cent.
There’s no denying how strongly Toronto has relied on Andersen this season, especially through the early absences of Matthews (to a shoulder injury) and Nylander. But as the year’s gone on, the Leafs have become leakier defensively, and they’re now 25th in the league in scoring chances against in the month of March.
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Toronto hits the road to face Ottawa on Saturday.