TORONTO – When Michael Hutchinson opened his season as the Maple Leafs’ back-up goaltender with an abysmal 0-6-1 record and was slapped with a demotion to the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies, it felt like his days with the organization were numbered.
Now, that mid-November low point is just a distant memory for Hutchinson, who not only found his way back to the NHL, but will look to win his fourth consecutive start on Saturday against the Ottawa Senators.
“[There’s been] a little bit of a change just in his confidence,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe after the Leafs’ team meeting on Saturday. “Each day, you see a little bit more personality in him. It's natural that he would be insecure about his place in the whole deal here. But he's played well and he's earned some wins and he feels like he belongs here now.”
Getting there hasn’t been easy for Hutchinson, not when opportunities to play behind Frederik Andersen are at a premium (Andersen’s started 41 games for Toronto this season, second-most in the NHL) and usually involve the second half of a back-to-back.
Even with Keefe making more effort to get Hutchinson in a rhythm, the back-up’s last start was on Jan. 4, when he shut out the New York Islanders 3-0. Since then, Hutchinson has been relegated to clean-up duty in two games where Andersen struggled. Taking the loss in both pushed his post-Marlies record to 3-3-0 with an .893 save percentage and 3.23 goals-against average.
So knowing he’ll have a clean slate again in Saturday’s tilt makes all the difference for Hutchinson, as he aims to replicate what worked well in those last three starts.
“It’s just coming in with a clear mindset, being relaxed and letting the game kind of come to me,” he said. “Sometimes when you don't play often you get too amped up for games or try to do too much and for myself [it’s important] to come in relaxed and just react to the game.”
While Hutchinson will key on what elevated his previous performances, he’s also aware that each game presents its own challenges, and there isn’t always as much positive carryover as people think.
“Even if you're playing consistently, I think [the idea of] momentum is one of those media-driven type things,” he said. “As a player, you take every game one game at a time. Especially as a back-up goalie, you're not playing, so even though you got a win in your last game, you still haven't played in a while. So the last game I started went well for me, which is nice, but tonight my focus is just on trying to find the things I did well in that game [mentally].”
The way Hutchinson has kept his composure and continued battling throughout this tumultuous season has earned the respect of his teammates, many of whom still acknowledge their part in the early struggles.
“It’s been nice to see him come back the way he has,” said Cody Ceci. “It was tough for him to start the way he did and have things unfold that way. But in his defence, we weren't really playing that well, we were giving up way too much and left him out to dry. Since he’s been back he’s started playing very well for us and stole some of those games, so it's good to see him get his confidence back.”
Now the question is whether Hutchinson can continue his upward trajectory in the starts Keefe gives him. Even though Andersen appeared at the NHL All-Star weekend in late January, Keefe still tapped his starter for Toronto’s first two games out of the break, a pair of wins that pushed the Leafs back into playoff position and made Keefe more comfortable giving Andersen a rest in favour of Hutchinson.
Keefe said “it’s our intention” to do that more often in the final stretch run of the regular season but he’ll asses the team week-by-week in making those decisions. But the way Toronto shored up its defensive play coming off the break adds extra appeal for Hutchinson to taking over the cage on Saturday.
“I thought we’ve played really well,” he said. “In [a 5-3 victory over] Dallas, it seemed like we were blocking so many shots. I think we've found another level in our game, in our detail, and it's exciting. I'm excited to get a chance to play with the team tonight, especially the way that they've played the last two games.”
How Hutchinson fares against Ottawa could also help determine whether Toronto makes a move at the back-up position before the NHL’s trade deadline on Feb. 24. That speculation isn’t on Hutchinson’s mind though, not when the Barrie, Ont., native is about to get his first crack as a starter in the famed Battle of Ontario.
“I remember watching it growing up,” Hutchinson said. “I was a big Leafs fan and so I remember just the energy around the house and my dad being excited for the games. It's a fun thing to be a part of and I'm really looking forward to tonight.”
Maple Leafs projected lineup vs. Ottawa
Travis Dermott will miss Saturday’s game with an illness