TORONTO — This was a game Sheldon Keefe felt his Toronto Maple Leafs should have won 99 times out of 100.
Instead, they lost their starting goaltender, lost their grip on a playoff spot and lost to the one per cent longshot thanks to a soul-crushing third period inside a stunned Scotiabank Arena.
“I mean the result sucks, right? But I don’t think the result is in any way indicative of the way the game went,” said Keefe. “We talk about the maturity of our team, a lot of the narrative is just how we can’t defend: That’s the best defensive game we’ve played the entire season. I don’t know if we gave up more than four scoring chances at even strength throughout the whole hockey game, including the third period.
“So that’s the way it goes.”
That’s the way it went because they couldn’t get a key save after an upper-body injury ended Frederik Andersen’s night during the first intermission.
The Leafs dominated the Florida Panthers to such a degree that it nearly didn’t matter. They built a 3-1 lead and barely asked Michael Hutchinson to break a sweat in relief of Andersen during a second period where they gave up just three shots — from 121, 79 and 46 feet out.
However, the job got a little tougher in the final period and Hutchinson wasn’t up to the task while allowing three goals inside eight minutes, including Mike Hoffman’s pinballing winner from below the goal-line.
“It was a knuckleball off (Aaron) Ekblad’s stick,” explained Hutchinson. “It was on edge when he shot it and it kind of curved coming into me and hit short side, and then because the puck was on end, it shot out far side instead of kind of staying on the short side, goes right to Hoffman, he goes to centre it and it goes off our D’s skate in between my legs.
“It was just one in a series of unfortunate events that ends up in the back of your net.”
This is nightmare fuel if you’re emotionally invested in the Leafs.
Even with all of their talent, even with the way they’re capable of controlling play, the entire season basically hinges on Andersen’s health and performance. The organization has played with fire by not having a more stable backup behind him — a storyline that’s fallen quiet thanks to a couple solid starts from Hutchinson of late, but one that can’t be ignored entirely given that he still sits 58th in even-strength save percentage (.899) among the 62 goalies with at least 10 NHL appearances this year.
The initial prognosis on Andersen was encouraging after he was involved in two separate collisions during Monday’s game — one with Frank Vatrano and teammate Jake Muzzin, the other with Mark Pysyk.
Andersen has a history of concussion and neck-related health issues, but Keefe indicated that he was only kept out as a precaution after passing the SCAT2 test. Should he remain symptom-free, we may even see him take part in Tuesday’s practice.
However, even if he’s ready to return for a visit to Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, it’s hard to imagine management watching how things played out against the Panthers and not at least wanting to explore the trade market for more depth at the position.
Keefe wouldn’t even entertain a question about how much confidence he has in Hutchinson should Andersen be sidelined for a prolonged stretch: “I’m not going to answer hypotheticals tonight.”
The coach did point to the hurdles he faced with this particular assignment, though.
“Obviously, it didn’t go very well, but that’s a challenging scenario,” said Keefe. “I mean he comes in cold but he’s not expected to play and he goes in the second period, and other than a couple dump-ins, I don’t know that he had any shots through two periods. So that’s a tough ask of any goalie.
“He is part of the team, he wants the opportunity, he’s in the net and he’d like to see positive results, but he’s in tough here today. I take a lot more from the games he’s played for us previously than I do tonight.”
Still, it’s hard to look past how significant this particular loss was.
The Leafs carried play by every metric — controlling the expected goals (61.3 per cent), scoring chances (69.4 per cent) and shot attempts (57.1 per cent) at even strength — and could have moved four points clear of the Panthers for the final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.
Instead, they fell back to a tie with them at 63 points, with two more games played.
Florida was playing without top centre Aleksander Barkov and veteran Brian Boyle and found itself out-attempted 37-18 through 40 minutes. The Leafs were in total control, especially after Auston Matthews made it 3-1 during the opening shift in the third period.
“It was fun to watch. It was great,” said Hutchinson. “I think that was the most dominant period we’ve had this season. We didn’t give them anything. It’s nice for us to see how we can play when we manage the puck and we eliminate their chances and really let our offence come alive.”
And yet that good process didn’t yield results.
In a race this tight, that hurts.