TORONTO – In the eyes of some teammates, Frederik Andersen has been the most important Maple Leaf this season. He’s quietly risen towards upper-echelon status in the NHL’s goalie guild these last few months.
"He played unbelievable all night," said centre Tyler Bozak.
"If he’s not our MVP, he’s right there," added Ron Hainsey. "He’s just given us great, great goaltending for however long now. We’ve got a chance every night. I could be here for a while if you wanted me to talk about how well he’s played."
The numbers suggest Andersen is comfortably in the conversation as a top-10 starter right now – all while playing the most minutes and facing the most shots of any goaltender in the NHL. His .922 save percentage is only bested by Andrei Vasilevskiy (.935), Jonathan Quick (.926), Henrik Lundqvist (.924) and three others at .923: Pekka Rinne, Connor Hellebuyck and John Gibson.
Andersen was more steady than spectacular against Columbus, but gave his teammates a chance to recover from a sluggish start that included three straight penalties.
He had them in the driver’s seat after second-period goals by James van Riemsdyk and William Nylander. The Leafs even built up an 11-1 shots advantage to start the third period before seeing a Jordan Schroeder wrister bounce off Columbus captain Nick Foligno, pop up in the air, hit Andersen on the shoulder and roll in.
"After the initial shot, it hit something and then I lost it after that," said Andersen.
No worries. The Leafs still had a 2-1 lead with 4:35 to play.
Then Morgan Rielly attempted a stretch pass while some teammates were making a line change, only to turn it over to Seth Jones. That left plenty of room for Jones to flip it over to Pierre-Luc Dubois, who beat Andersen from the slot.
The 3-on-3 overtime was a toss-up, with Schroeder and Artemi Panarin having dangerous looks for Columbus and Bozak getting stopped by reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky on a breakaway. When the play came back up ice, Panarin directed home a Zach Werenski pass to seal the comeback win.
As much as his goalie couldn’t be faulted for the outcome, Leafs coach Mike Babcock was less charitable towards Andersen than the teammates who felt he deserved better.
"Their goalie kept them in the game too, right?" said Babcock. "We were all over them in the third and their goalie kept it, so they had a chance. We had lots of chances in the third and good ones. That’s what you pay these guys for, they’re supposed to make the saves."
The biggest question surrounding Andersen’s play is one of consistency. We’ve learned that he’s capable of tremendous highs during his season and a half in Toronto, but there have been some valleys as well.
He and goalie coach Steve Briere have talked about working his way into the conversation as an elite No. 1 – something he’s in the process of striding towards now.
It helps that Andersen has the perfect demeanour to weather the highs and lows of his job, especially under the bright lights of a Canadian market. There is no discernable difference in his body language after a win or loss, and he didn’t express any frustration at the way things unfolded against the Blue Jackets.
"I think we played great and maybe started passing up a couple of shots down [in the Columbus end] and could have put it away in the third," he said. "We didn’t, and they get a good bounce and tie it up."
It was the first time Toronto lost a game when leading after two periods all season.
Goaltending has played a significant role in the turnaround from a year ago, just as it has in the 4-1 record the Leafs now sport in shootouts after going 1-8 in 2016-17.
The loss against Columbus was just plain weird. Andersen was sharp and his teammates played a strong final period while ahead 2-0. Yet, somehow, they ended up giving away a point.
"We made some great plays in the third where we had some odd-man rushes," said Hainsey. "I think maybe three two-on-ones and some other stuff. We had some chances but couldn’t finish.
"They keep playing, they’re a hard-working team that’s well-coached and know what they’re doing. They put a couple in on us and then overtime. We’ve been on the right side of overtime this week until today. Gets a little crazy out there."
It was crazy Andersen walked away from this outing with a loss.
But it happens to the best of them.