Frederik Andersen buying Maple Leafs time to get shaky act together

John Tavares scored the overtime winner and Frederik Andersen made 37 saves and the Montreal Canadiens beat the Vegas Golden Knights 2-1.

TORONTO – Want to scare the bejesus out of any card-carrying member of Leafs Nation?

Here’s a frightening exercise: Imagine the Toronto Maple Leafs but without Frederik Andersen.

Since getting pulled and embarrassed during Toronto’s 7-2 shellacking on Oct. 10 by the Tampa Bay Lightning, the great Dane has settled all the way down, posting a remarkable 7-0-2 record.

With Andersen’s performance seizing centre stage in Thursday night’s 2-1 overtime victory over an organized and pressing Vegas Golden Knights group, he has been the backbone of the Leafs’ perfect November (3-0), a stabilizing force allowing an inconsistent, unfamiliar roster to find its footing and compile its first three-game winning streak of the season.

Andersen’s save percentages since the calendar flipped months: .925, .960, .974. (Not counted here are the 10 saves Andersen made in the Leafs’ franchise-record-breaking shootout victory in Philadelphia Saturday.)

“He’s been getting better just like each year. He kind of gets through October and seems to kick it into gear and gets feeling good,” said head coach Mike Babcock of the only goalie he can trust. “He’s an important player for us, a good leader for us. We need him to make big saves.”

That he did, and Andersen acted as mellow as an Ed Sheeran song doing so.

Poised kick saves, quick flashes of the glove, nary a rebound or bobbled puck-handle.

“It definitely felt like the puck was following me a little bit around, so it’s a good feeling,” said Andersen, projecting calm before, during and after.

On this evening we counted, oh, about four enthusiastic rounds of the familiar “Fred-die! Fred-die! Fred-die!” chants from a home throng given little else to rally around as the Knights restricted the Leafs’ attempts to the perimeter and killed five consecutive Toronto power plays before Auston Matthews finally found twine on the sixth.

We also watched a grinning Matthews hop the bench and make a bee line to embrace his goalie once John Tavares converted a sharp-angle 2-on-1 OT rush to ruin poor Malcolm Subban’s first start in his hometown.

“By far our best player on the ice tonight,” Matthews said. “He just kept us in it with the penalty kill obviously at the end of the game.”

Tavares said Andersen (37 saves) deserved all three stars of the game, noting his stopping all 12 Knights arrows on the penalty kill, which dipped into overtime due to what could’ve been a costly too-many-men foul.

“Hell of a night by Fred,” Tavares said.

Vegas coach Gerard Gallant opted to give at least one star to his own netminder.

“The two goalies were the first stars,” Gallant said. “Great goaltending.”

Subban deserves credit for his role in securing the Knights a standings point and surely cannot be faulted for either of the Leafs’ strikes.

“Both goalies are in the same situation. You gotta battle and compete and find a way to make saves. He did at the other end, and I came up short,” said Subban. “It’s tough when you get outplayed by the other goaltender.”

Max Pacioretty, too, had no choice but tip his cap.

“He’s one of the best in the league for a reason — the timeliness of the saves,” said Pacioretty, the only one to solve Andersen Thursday. “Ultimately we have to do a better job probably taking away his eyes and bearing down on the very good chances, but you can’t take away credit that he’s a very strong goaltender.”

Andersen’s excellence is biding time for Toronto to get its shaky act together. The Leafs rank in the bottom third of the league in such important categories as giveaways, power play, penalty kill, and shots allowed.

But superior goaltending masks so much. And just ask the Kings, Devils, Red Wings or Sharks (the bottom four clubs in save percentage) where poor goaltending leaves you.

Of course, any conversation around Andersen — the NHL’s runaway saves leader (6,079) since he arrived in this city in 2016 — would not be complete without acknowledging workload.

It’s worth noting that Vegas gave Marc-Andre Fleury a night off Thursday, even though the Knights weren’t in a back-to-back situation.

In terms of usage, Fleury is a fantastic comparable to Andersen. Since the beginning of last season, Fleury has made 74 starts. Andersen has 73.

The differences here are that Vegas is making a conscious, public effort to cut down on riding a single goalie, and the Knights believe their 25-year-old backup has what it takes to develop into an NHL starter.

“Fleury plays a lot of big games for us, but this kid [Subban] is gonna have to take some of those games,” Gallant said. “You can’t play a guy 70-80 games a year, so we have all the confidence in the world in Malcolm. We think we got the best goalie in the league in Fleury, and then Malcolm is going to get some more games than he got in the past.

“If you’re going to go anywhere in the NHL, you need two good goaltenders — and we believe we do.”

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