Mere hours before his freshest signature victory — a 2-1 shootout special over the inspired Calgary Flames — the most valuable Toronto Maple Leaf of 2017-18 was asked to describe the shot he finds most difficult to stop.
“Not telling you,” replied Frederik Andersen, ever stoic.
The No. 1 goaltender’s brick expression after Wednesday’s morning skate would soon be mimicked by his entire 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame later that night. En route to his 16th win of the year, Andersen would make a season-high 47 saves, plus three more in the skills contest.
Five times already these defensively flawed Maple Leafs have surrendered 40 or more shots in a single game. Remarkably, they’ve now escaped with nine of a possible 10 standings points in those loosey-goosey affairs.
It’s Steady Freddy — a man handily leading all NHLers in shots against, saves, and time on ice — who deserves the bulk of the credit. Like the Springfield Tire Fire, the man burns through heaps of rubber and still won’t budge.
When facing 40 or more pucks, Andersen is 10-2-2 over his career and leads all goaltenders in that category.
Andersen has ballooned October’s sub-.900 save percentage to a shiny .922 mark. Imagine where Edmonton or Philadelphia might be with this level of goaltending.
On this night, crease-crasher Matthew Tkachuk made it a personal mission to get all up in his tkitchen, once maybe accidentally slamming his knee into Andersen’s mask and doing his best to shadow, irritate and generally harass a goalie on his game.
“Emotions were running pretty high,” Andersen said. “I just tried to stay composed.”
So, how do you solve a goaltender who’s as locked-in as his secrets?
Pressed in that pre-game conversation for details on the pucks that do elude him, Andersen did offer this bit of advice for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who will attempt to crumble the Danish fortress Saturday.
“The ones you can’t see are very tough. You see the point shots where the goalie is screened. It could be a little wrister or a 100-mile-an-hour slap shot, it’s not really going to matter,” he explained.
“If you can’t see it, you can’t stop it.”
Andersen unwittingly pre-described the one Calgary shot that did beat him. Walking the line on a Flames power play, captain Mark Giordano sifted a high wrist shot halfway through the first period with big Troy Brouwer planted in front of Andersen.
Everything else, Andersen saw.
The first thing he watched was an epic troll job by what Giordano described as “the centre of the hockey universe” on poor Calgary the Sports City. The Grey Cup, a trophy lost narrowly and painfully in the past two championship games by Calgary’s Stampeders, was toted into the building by Toronto’s Argonauts, and the Leafs invited Argos Matt Black, Lirim Hajrullahu, Shawn Lemon and Tyler Holmes to drop a ceremonial puck at Calgary’s feet.
— Toronto Argonauts (@TorontoArgos) December 7, 2017
The second sideshow worth seeing, and surely the NHL’s department of player safety will take a gander, was Tkachuk sneak-spearing Leafs tough guy Matt Martin from the bench.
Martin sloughed it off as “child’s play,” and Leafs coach Mike Babcock dismissed it as “junior hockey stuff.” Tkachuk was not made available to reporters.
But the most important Leafs hockey development, outside of Andersen’s mastery of his blue domain, was the continued emergence of William Nylander as hockey’s most dangerous fourth-liner.
Whether breaking Matt Stajan’s ankles on a nifty zone entry, changing directions on a dime, or ringing a post, Nylander’s speedy, crafty play was screaming for a line promotion even if his mouth wasn’t.
“He can do a lot of good things,” Babcock said. “He’s just got to improve the details in his game, but he’s a good player and dynamic and he can skate.”
Calgary’s defence did a fantastic job of limiting the Auston Matthews line’s quality chances, so it was Nylander acting a creative force down the roster, not unlike Mitchell Marner for a spell before him. And Babcock’s game of right-wing roulette keeps on spinning.
“That’s not where those guys want to be, but when they’re there, they make the most of it. Willie right now has been really good. He took that Edmonton game by storm. Calgary, as well, he was pretty dominant. He’s a positive guy,” Martin says.
“That’s an important thing. Sometimes when guys get moved down the lineup, they kinda sulk and pout about it. That makes it hard for us as players, too. It kinda makes you feel like they don’t want to play with you. But both those guys come right over to you: ‘What’s up, liney? Let’s score some goals. Let’s have some fun.’ That goes a long way.”
As soon as Nylander got promoted to the top six, with 1:13 remaining in the second period, his forecheck (and a fluky bounce off the boards) helped create panic in the Calgary end that ultimately led to the tying goal. Morgan Rielly snapped home his fourth of the year off a Giordano turnover.
The 1-1 score blessed us with the treat that is 3-on-3 OT in Toronto — Matthews and Johnny Gaudreau trading Grade-A chances in open ice gave us wonderful Team North America flashbacks — and a shootout that summoned two heroes for the home crowd to stand for.
Nylander patiently waited for Mike Smith to commit before going forehand-backhand-roof on the deciding shootout goal, and a dialed-in Andersen saw Mikeal Backlund’s attempt all the way.