Frederik Andersen holds key to Maple Leafs’ playoff hopes

Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews (left) celebrates with goaltender Frederik Andersen after defeating the Montreal Canadiens in NHL hockey action in Toronto, on Saturday, April 7, 2018. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO – Frederik Andersen has stood in the fire, twice starting – and losing – a game that could have sent the Anaheim Ducks to the Stanley Cup Final. In his fifth straight trip to the post-season, he’s adopted the kind of focus necessary to walk barefoot through hot coals.

“If you lose a game or let in a goal … you’ve got to have a short memory and be able to get back on track and just do what you try every time there’s a puck in your end,” Andersen said Monday. “Just try to make a save. You can’t dwell on anything. Just make the next one.”

These are the words of Steady Freddie, a man who isn’t inclined to dwell much on how his season ended with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Andersen established a new organizational record with 39 wins and posted an above-average .918 save percentage, but he also raised concerns about fatigue while throwing up an .896 over 12 appearances after March 1.

It was no coincidence that he went six days between starts late in the schedule. Mike Babcock rode his No. 1 goalie hard in 2017-18 – as is Andersen’s preference – but saw no point in potentially running him into the ground on the eve of the playoffs where the Leafs are facing high expectations for the first time in 15 years.

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The psychological toll is arguably greatest on the man in the crease come the spring. And while Andersen seldom shows any signs of outward strain, he’s spent this entire season trying to push the boundaries of his own performance.

The results start to come due once a first-round series with the Boston Bruins gets underway on Thursday night.

“How do you build yourself into someone that you know, that you don’t hope?” said Babcock. “Once you know, it happens more and more often because you just believe. When things go bad you shake it off. When you don’t know, when things go bad you start to question [them]. So that’s the biggest thing.

“Winning leads to winning. When you’ve done it you believe you can do it again. And so that’s the challenge for all of us in this room.”

While there is more than one way to win a Stanley Cup, most championship recipes include the same main ingredient. Consider that nine of the last 12 teams to lift the trophy did so while getting a .920 save percentage or better from their goaltender of record in the playoffs.

Andersen has certainly shown himself capable of producing those types of numbers over a 25-game stretch. It’s just a matter of dialling it in at the right time and delivering under pressure. The Dane came away encouraged from his last two starts – stopping 68 of 72 shots against New Jersey and Montreal after getting back in the crease following his mini-break.

“I like to just look back very rarely,” said Andersen. “I think the key is for me to just build off the last two games here where I got that rest and came back and played well. Get back into the good feeling of playing every day. That’s what I’m going to take from it, those last two games.

“Hopefully it will be two good months of goaltending now.”

It says something of Andersen’s standing within the dressing room that Toronto scored the third-most goals in the NHL this season and yet many teammates mention him as their MVP. He kept things on the rails during a particularly uninspired stretch of play midway through the year.

Nazem Kadri mentioned that it took some time to figure him out when he arrived in a trade with Anaheim before last season – “He was just kind of flat line every single day,” said Kadri – and so you can imagine that Andersen caught everyone’s attention back on Jan. 18 when he questioned the commitment of his teammates (https://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/maple-leafs-new-look-cant-erase-old-problems/) following a lacklustre loss in Philadelphia.

Along with a lineup shakeup that followed days later, the tone of the Leafs season changed then. They finished 24-9-2 after Andersen’s comments – good for the NHL’s third-best points percentage down the stretch.

When the goaltender made his way into the dressing room following a first-star turn on Saturday, everyone went quiet. Then, after an uncomfortable pause, the Leafs players broke out in celebration of a victory that propelled him past Ed Belfour and Andrew Raycroft for most wins in a single season by a member of the organization.

“You kind of mess with him,” said rookie defenceman Travis Dermott. “Like ‘Oh, no one cares, no one’s really saying anything, it’s just a regular game after you won.’ He’s just set this amazing record. It’s kind of a cool little shot at him when he comes in, no one’s really excited, and then we all kind of burst out and give him the excitement.”

For a brief moment, Freddie may even have been fazed.

“That was pretty funny,” said good friend Auston Matthews. “He knew what was going on, but he was kind of embarrassed, too. So it was funny.”

A little levity before things get heavy.

Andersen said that the dawning of the playoffs almost felt like a new season. In this season, especially, hope springs eternal.

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