TORONTO – With two-and-a-half minutes left in Saturday’s nail biter against Washington the Calgary Flames were throwing everything they could at the defending champs.
The goalie was pulled and coach Bill Peters summoned all his top guns with an eye on tying the game.
As longtime power-play staple T.J. Brodie exited the ice, on came a weapon few expected to be deployed:
It was the very same Andersson who was on his way to Stockton earlier this month to open his third season in the minors.
Despite a solid training camp that had many observers convinced he deserved an opening night gig with the Flames, the Swedish rearguard was the last cut – largely a victim of the numbers game.
All that changed one night later when Travis Hamonic’s facial fractures sent him to the injured list and Andersson was brought back up.
From there he’s been the club’s most pleasant surprise, exhibiting a poise and confidence belying the 11 games of NHL experience he had prior to this season.
Working his way steadily up the roster, he’s gone from healthy scratch to progressing through all three pairings, including parts of two recent games alongside Mark Giordano on the top duo.
Suddenly, there he was at perhaps the most crucial moment of the Flames season thus far, pressing for a game-tying goal his team needed to salvage a point, not to mention its sanity.
With 87 seconds left on the clock Andersson fired a shot towards the net that was deftly deflected by Matthew Tkachuk past Caps goalie Pheonix Copley.
It tied the game and darn near blew the roof off a Saddledome that has housed one tense, nerve-wracked fan base and team following the club’s punishment by the Penguins two days earlier.
It was his first NHL point – a richly deserved assist for a player whose storybook ascendance early this season has made him a fan favourite.
And it came on his 22nd birthday.
“I knew Chucky was a great tipper so I kind of had to just get it in there and he did the rest,” shrugged Andersson, whose moment in the sun was overshadowed by the team’s 4-3 loss in the shootout.
“It’s nice to get the first point but I wish we got the two points for the rest of the team.”
Several American Hockey League observers said last year that Andersson was so dominant in his all-star season it was almost laughable he was still in the minors.
The Flames called him up for ten games, but he wasn’t nearly as noticeable as he is this year.
Some of that may have had to do with his increased dedication to fitness this summer.
Either way the Flames’ second rounder is clearly here to stay, said Peters.
“There is no question he’s played well,” said Peters, who has afforded Andersson over 19 minutes of ice time twice of late.
“Everything he has earned. He played well in the pre-season. We need to get better with transitioning the puck from the neutral zone to their end with speed and he helps that a lot. He’s a guy who is definitely going to stay in the lineup for us.”
It’s high praise from a coach with eight defencemen on his current roster, several of who will likely have to rotate in and out of the lineup for the next little while.
A good problem for a team looking for more defensive stability early on. Visiting the Maple Leafs Monday, it’s quite likely the Flames will go with three defencemen age 22 and younger, including Valimaki and Noah Hanifin.
“I’ve just tried to take it day-by-bay and game-by-game,” said Andersson when asked if he’s taken stock of his rapid rise to prominence. “It feels better and better each game you play in.”
Today I played (on the third pairing) with Val (20-year-old rookie Juuso Valimaki) and thought we had some good shifts, but we were in for their third goal and maybe we could have sorted it out better.
“You’ve just got to be confident out there and play your game and play to your strengths.”
One of his strengths revolves around an innate ability to jump into the play, which is crucial for top-four defencemen in today’s game. He can regularly be seen deep in the offensive zone via calculated forays and pinches.
It’s that comfort up front that led to his golden opportunity late Saturday – a telling nod from a new coach in Calgary who has tremendous faith in him.
“You don’t really think thoughts like that when you’re on the ice but it’s obviously always nice to be out there in a close game,” said Andersson, whose father, Peter, played for the New York Rangers. (brother Calle was also drafted by the Rangers).
“That’s when you want to play and you want to have the puck on your stick. That’s what I did today and hopefully I get to do that in the future too.”
It’s certainly trending that way.