Andersen sole reason Maple Leafs earn point in back-to-back opener

Gustav Nyquist scored on a penalty shot in overtime and the Columbus Blue Jackets defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs.

TORONTO — When given a choice between possibly or certainty, Mike Babcock does the same thing every single time.

He starts Frederik Andersen in the first game of a back-to-back regardless of opponent or venue. He then watches the Toronto Maple Leafs bank points in the standings at an encouraging rate.

That’s what happened here Monday at Scotiabank Arena, where the Leafs were outplayed early and late. And yet they still managed to come away with the loser point in dropping a 4-3 overtime game to the Columbus Blue Jackets because Andersen stood tall amid all the stick fouls, defensive lapses and brain cramps.

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“I thought the goals that went in on him, he really had no help,” said Mitch Marner.

Any criticism of the Leafs goalie deployment strategy conveniently ignores its eye-popping success rate. Babcock has used Andersen as the opener in 47 of the 48 back-to-backs the team has played dating back to 2016-17, and seen Toronto go 34-8-5 in those starts.

That’s a .777 points percentage. The NHL average in the first game of a back-to-back over that same timeframe is .556, according to Sportsnet Stats.

Maybe other teams should adopt a more rigid approach to how they handle their goaltenders during the most demanding stretches of schedule.

“Let’s take this a little bit farther. Let’s just do the math here because you guys ask me about this all the time,” said Babcock. “So can you imagine if you lost Game 1 and then you went to Game 2 tired?

“I don’t know, the investment makes no sense to me whatsoever.”

As Michael Hutchinson can attest, that makes life pretty difficult on the backup. He’ll be playing behind a tired Toronto team during Tuesday’s game in Boston, but at least the Leafs are already guaranteed to have something to show for this back-to-back.

That’s the norm around here.

The Leafs have only lost games in regulation on consecutive nights twice in the Babcock/Andersen Era: Oct. 29 and Oct. 30, 2016, and Dec. 14 and Dec. 15, 2017.

There’s no way to know for certain how differently Monday’s game would have turned out if it was Hutchinson rather than Andersen starting in goal. But the Leafs backbone was tested a lot after Toronto dug out of an early 2-0 hole — getting a blocker on Ryan Murray’s open look and sliding his left pad across to stop Zach Werenski before swallowing up a Gus Nyquist shot from the hash marks in the second period.

This had all the makings of a regulation loss if not for Steady Freddie.

He allowed Mitch Marner to recover from an early giveaway by setting up Kasperi Kapanen’s short-handed goal and gave Auston Matthews the chance to make amends for a blown defensive assignment by tying it 2-2 and setting up William Nylander for the go-ahead goal.

After Alex Wennberg tied it for Columbus on a third-period power play, Andersen denied 41-goal man Cam Atkinson on a clear breakaway before the buzzer. He couldn’t even be remotely faulted for the penalty shot goal from Nyquist in overtime that ended it.

“He made a number of really good saves for us to keep us ahead, to keep us tied,” said Matthews.

Perhaps the best tip of the cap came from how urgent the mood was around the Leafs after the game. You might have thought they were beaten soundly with the way Babcock read off a disturbingly long list of recent penalties or the way Jake Muzzin spoke about the team’s lack of defensive commitment.

“It’s a recipe for giving goals up when you take penalties and turn over pucks and play in your zone. You can’t win like that,” said Muzzin.

“We’re gonna play better defensively,” he added. “We have to. No matter what. No matter who’s in net. No matter what team we’re playing.”

The 12th point in the standings was basically put there by the soft-spoken Danish goaltender.

The only reason there’s been so much focus on Babcock’s back-to-back strategy is because Toronto has struggled to find a reliable No. 2 during his tenure in Toronto.

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Of the six goaltenders to play behind Andersen over the last three-plus seasons, only Hutchinson and Curtis McElhinney still hold NHL jobs. The Leafs are 19-25-3 in the second half of back-to-backs over that period as a result — a stat that becomes more palatable when you factor in that they’ve won nearly 75 per cent of the games immediately preceding them.

That’s because Andersen has been so money in those situations.

The numbers don’t lie.

When he’s rested and the team’s rested, Toronto has a much better chance for success.

“It’s the most important position in the game, we all know that,” said Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella. “Goaltending basically determines a lot of the winning and losing of games.”

And it got the Leafs a point they didn’t deserve on Monday night.

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