TORONTO – You can’t even truly relax when you’ve got a playoff spot locked up with four weeks to go.
Just ask the Toronto Maple Leafs, who felt like they lost Wednesday’s game to the Dallas Stars on two separate occasions before somehow pulling out a 6-5 shootout victory. Even then they didn’t escape without concern after seeing team MVP Frederik Andersen pull himself from the net more than half an hour after taking Alex Radulov’s knee to the head.
Given the goaltender’s history of neck and head injuries, it had to raise some alarm bells. None of them came from Mike Babcock during his post-game media availability, but that’s standard operating procedure around a team which basically labels every injury "day to day."
"I haven’t asked yet, but it sure didn’t seem like much," said Babcock. "He played after he got hurt so I don’t know exactly. It’s an upper-body injury and I’ll find out more here in a bit."
Curtis McElhinney seemed a little more worried after coming on in relief and earning the victory. He was surprised to be handed his blocker and trapper from the trainers during a stoppage in play midway through the second period.
There had been no prior hint from Andersen that something might be wrong.
"It’s a tough situation," said McElhinney. "Obviously it demands a lot, the position, and he wasn’t feeling in the right frame of mind. He pulled himself and I think he’ll just take care of himself."
At least the Leafs have the benefit of some time – McElhinney was always scheduled to get Thursday night’s start in Buffalo – and plenty of comfort in the standings. They now own a 14-point cushion over Florida in the Atlantic Division standings, all but guaranteeing a return to post-season with 12 games still to play.
But it’s how they arrive there that has Babcock and the coaching staff pushing buttons already.
The game against Dallas was meant to be the start of their fine-tuning, what with the Leafs coming off an extremely soft stretch of schedule where they only played once in eight days. Prevailing wisdom suggested that no one stood to benefit more from that break than Andersen, who entered the night having faced 100 more shots than any of his counterparts.
"The rest has been unbelievable for our goaltender, for our team in general, just to get re-energized," Babcock had said before puck drop.
The heart rates spiked quickly. The Leafs came firing out of the gates and built a quick 2-0 lead before seeing the tide change when Roman Polak and Radulov engaged in a battle that ended up with the Stars winger on top of Andersen.
Babcock indicated that his No. 1 goaltender was hurt on the sequence, which unfolded 15:51 of game time before Andersen eventually skated off.
The Leafs were trailing 3-2 when he did and saw that deficit stretched to 4-2 before a third-period rally sparked by James van Riemsdyk. He scored twice to complete the hat trick and may have even got a fourth goal late in regulation, although the 6-on-5 equalizer was initially credited to teammate Patrick Marleau.
From there, Toronto managed to kill off a penalty in overtime before Tyler Bozak and Mitch Marner scored goals in the shootout. McElhinney denied both Dallas attempts.
"It was a strange game," said the veteran backup.
This is a deep Leafs team that has managed its lofty spot in the standings despite playing 17 games (and counting) without top centre Auston Matthews, who remains sidelined with a separated shoulder.
Forging on without Andersen will be another challenge altogether.
The Dane has taken his game to another level this season, keeping Toronto afloat while facing a ton of rubber. In fairness, McElhinney has also posted the best numbers of his NHL career – with a .928 save percentage in 14 appearances.
"He’s stepped in very nicely for us and it’s usually tough situations when he’s getting in there," said van Riemsdyk.
The organization also has two of the best American Hockey League options in Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard should reinforcements be needed. They’ve both been phenomenal for the Marlies and have some prior NHL experience.
However, the mere fact that this may now become a conversation around Toronto is a reminder that you can’t take anything for granted at this time of year. Things can change quickly even when a team appears to be on cruise control.