CALGARY — This could have been 6-4. For either team.
Rather than a comfortable 6-2 victory that delighted the Toronto Maple Leafs supporters who mixed plenty of blue into the “C of Red,” Monday would have looked a lot different if not for Frederik Andersen.
The Calgary Flames threw everything they had at the icy Danish goaltender. Breakaways, odd-man rushes, open shots from inside the circles.
“Freddie was awesome,” said Zach Hyman. “I think the crowd was great, too. Tons of Leafs fans. We heard Freddie’s name get chanted, which was pretty cool. You don’t see that often in an away building so we travel really well.”
“He keeps us in it,” added Tyler Ennis. “Sometimes we don’t start too well and he keeps us right there with a lot of big saves and then we kind of find it.”
Andersen, a shoo-in finalist-to-be for the Vezina Trophy, calmly turned back virtually all of the potential trouble, keeping the Flames from building any real belief in a potential comeback after his teammates gave him a 3-0 lead before the first intermission.
Flames goaltender David Rittich couldn’t really be faulted on any of those scores — nor the fourth, when Zach Hyman was left with a tap-in after Mitch Marner turned T.J. Brodie inside out — but goaltending remains a big differentiator between Canada’s top two NHL teams.
Just imagine where the Leafs might find themselves if not for Andersen’s sparkling .924 save percentage.
They do not feature a defence as stout as Calgary’s, and if you were only to read the boxscore from this game you wouldn’t realize how much different these 60 minutes might have been.
“We were up 3-0 after one, but I don’t think that that’s how the style of play really panned out,” said Hyman.
Andersen stopped Austin Czarnik on a clear breakaway when it was still 1-0. He calmly gloved dangerous looks from Mikael Backlund and Johnny Gaudreau during a strong second-period push from the locals.
“It feels nice to stop one on a breakaway and obviously see them go down and score right away and use that momentum,” said Andersen. “It was a fun save to make and it was great to see the guys being sharp on their chances.”
The goaltender allowed the story to become Tyler Ennis, the fourth-liner who scored the first hat trick of his 532-game NHL career. He scored a beauty with his backhand on a first-period power play before finding some good fortune — having one shot float high and in off Flames defenceman Rasmus Andersson before seeing another beat Rittich clean while Travis Hamonic accidentally screened his own goalie.
It produced a flood of hats from the bipartisan crowd, surely the highlight of a season where Ennis signed for the league minimum in an effort to resuscitate his career.
“We’re so lucky to have this fanbase,” said Ennis, who has suffered from hip issues in recent years and spent the entire summer working with the Leafs sports science staff. “To have that many hats on the ice in an away area is very special. It was just a good night.”
Incredibly, he’s now up to 12 goals despite missing 18 games with a broken ankle and averaging just over 10 minutes in the 40 games he’s played.
That underscores just how ridiculous Toronto’s forward depth is. Tampa is arguably the only team who can match it.
Marner hit 81 points on Monday with a goal and two assists — both on goals from Hyman, who is one of six Leafs with at least 16 on the season — while Ennis netted a hat trick two days after being a healthy scratch in Saturday’s victory over Buffalo.
“We just thought with our medical people, if [Ennis] could get his legs back and get feeling good, there’d be an opportunity for him,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “We bet that our sports science people would be able to get him up and running and feeling good.”
With time winding down on a regular season that is likely to finish with the most victories in Leafs history, head coach Mike Babcock is trying to impart the importance of play at the other end of the ice. They likely gave up more chances than he cared to see at Scotiabank Saddledome.
“If you can’t play without [the puck], you’ll go out in the first round of the playoffs every year,” said Babcock. “So, you can have all these great regular season results, but when there’s no space and no room and the other team is above you and they’re just going to wait for you to turn it over, you’re going to turn it over if you won’t do the same.
“In the end, you end up disappointed in the spring.”
Truth be told, the Leafs’ playoff hopes will hinge heavily on Andersen. Fortunately for them, he appears more than capable of shouldering the load.