Why the Maple Leafs should (and will) stick to goalie plan

Curtis McElhinney made a big save in the last seconds of the second period against Patrick Eaves to give the Maple Leafs a fighting chance against the Stars.

“They throw you in the war and you have to survive.”Sergei Bobrovsky on Curtis McElhinney

After the greatest performance by a Toronto Maple Leafs backup goaltender since James Reimer lived in this city, Mike Babcock lobbed the ball right back in Frederik Andersen‘s court.

“Now the challenge is back for Andy,” said the head coach in the wake of Curtis McElhinney’s 39-save, 3-1 victory over the Dallas Stars Tuesday night.

It was the brand of win Leafs fans had become so unaccustomed to witnessing — tight scoring, arriving on the slack end of a back-to-back, and just the third W hung by a Toronto No. 2 all season — that the notion of letting McElhinney start Thursday versus St. Louis began to take root.

He shouldn’t. And we’re 99.9 per cent certain he won’t.

Memo to the Nation: Backup goalies can steal a game without becoming a threat to steal a job. In fact, they must do so occasionally in order to keep their own gigs (see: Gustavsson, Jonas; Khudobin, Anton; Enroth, Jhonas). Don’t rush to concoct a goalie controversy that doesn’t exist.

“He’s a good pro. He gets on the ice first; he works hard every single day. So, when it’s his turn, it’s not lucky that he’s good,” Babcock said of McElhinney, a January waiver pickup from Columbus.

“He’s earned the right to play good and feel good about himself. Mac flat-out works, does it all right, and when your partner does that he goes out and he sets the tone.”

Granted, the quiet, laid-back tone registered by journeyman McElhinney in the small sample since the all-star break has been superior to Andersen’s.

Andersen is 1-1-1 since the NHL’s long weekend off, with a 5.88 goals-against average and a .833 save percentage. McElhinney is 1-1-0, with a 2.24 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.

McElhinney’s loss came in relief of Andersen in Dallas on Jan. 31, when the starter dug the Leafs a 0-3 hole in 11:18.

“The biggest thing was the relief appearance I made against Dallas was tough, not really the result I wanted going in,” McElhinney said after Tuesday’s home revenge. “There was certainly a little motivation coming back here.”

The Stars also missed some juicy opportunities, rang a couple posts, and that flawed Leafs D-core did a much better job staying on the right side of the puck than they did with Andersen in net for 11 combined goals against the Bruins (Saturday) and Islanders (Monday).

“That was big. It starts in the neutral zone coming back, making easy plays, breaking the puck out fast,” Jake Gardiner said. “When we’re in the D-zone – blocking shots, boxing guys out.”

To a man, one of the things athletes say they like about playing for Babcock is that they know their role, where they’re supposed to be.

Ryan O’Reilly and Matt Duchene knew it on Team Canada. Zach Hyman knows he must bust his butt killing penalties and fetching pucks for Auston Matthews, who knows he’s the man. Nazem Kadri knows he needs to grow into an elite shutdown No. 2 centre and get better at faceoffs.

Andersen knows he’s the No. 1. He’s paid like one, and he’s constantly reassured in word and deed, given plenty of rope early this season — even in games most goalies would’ve got the mercy yank.

Unlike Enroth, who had a spin as a No. 1 in Buffalo, and Antoine Bibeau, who’s still developing, McElhinney knows his role: a lifetime No. 2, destined to ball-cap it for long periods of time between back-to-backs, injury relief and mop-up shifts.

That’s partially why the 33-year-old fit so well in Columbus for three-and-a-half seasons. There was zero doubt Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky was the star, and the two struck a close bond.

Bobrovsky took McElhinney’s departure hard. They’re still good friends and speak frequently.

“It’s ended up pretty good for him to go to Toronto. It’s a great team in the NHL,” Bobrovsky said.

“Very smart person. A great guy to talk to outside of hockey also. I had a great relationship with him, and it was tough when he left.”

Ironically, if Babcock sticks to the pattern, McElhinney’s next start will arrive next Wednesday in Columbus.

“He’s so professional. He cares about his body a lot, cares about his teammates a lot. It’s not easy job when you play two, three times in a month and you have to show a big result. You don’t have room for mistake,” Bobrovsky said.

“You don’t feel the rhythm of the game. They throw you in the war and you have to survive.”

Don’t get it twisted. Under a Babcockian meritocracy, the player who gives the team its best chance at glory gets his number on the lineup card.

When the games mattered most and Babcock ran the Red Wings bench, Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek’s contracts had nothing to do with winning.

But we do believe Babcock will be patient during Andersen’s recent dip. It way too early to play the win-and-you’re-in game.

The great Dane backstopped the Leafs this far, winning 22 games behind a mediocre blue line, and his save percentage (.914) is better than that of Tuukka Rask and Mike Condon, the No. 1s belonging to the other clubs battling for Atlantic Division seeds.

This franchise is taking the long view, and McElhinney is a rental.

One who looks fit to help Toronto survive the final push, and that’s good enough.

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