TORONTO — This would be an interesting concession from Frederik Andersen whenever he made it.
But at this critical juncture of his most challenging season in the Toronto Maple Leafs crease it stood out even more. Amid a personal three-game losing streak, and with his coach offering yet another public show of support, the stoic Andersen acknowledged that he’s been off his game mentally while stringing together a couple sub-.900 starts since returning from a neck injury last week.
“When I’m at my best, I didn’t really worry about what’s going on, about things I can’t control,” Andersen said Wednesday. “I think that’s something I’ve been working on lately. Just trying to make sure that I put in the 100 per cent effort and focus on what I do and what my job is to do.
“I think that’s, uh, over the last little bit it’s been what’s missing.”
On the list of what’s troubling the Leafs, Andersen is far from the only entry. The recent pair of 5-2 losses in Pittsburgh and Buffalo certainly couldn’t be hung around his neck, although Sheldon Keefe did say after Tuesday’s game against the Penguins that “I thought their goaltender [Tristan Jarry] was better than ours today.”
Still, it’s telling that the Leafs coach is going back to Andersen for Thursday’s start rather than turning to Jack Campbell, he of the 3-0-1 record since arriving in a trade from Los Angeles.
It’s the safest choice because it shows deference to one of the NHL’s steadiest performers over the last three seasons and the unquestioned No. 1 in these parts during that period. The Leafs are obviously mindful of not wanting to show any doubt in Andersen, and don’t want to make matters worse for him.
They are looking at the big picture while throwing him back in to complete a home-and-home with Pittsburgh even in a moment where the here and now — the points available — is so vital to their push for a playoff spot.
“Yeah it was fairly obvious,” Keefe said of his goaltending decision. “He’s our guy. He’s coming back off of an injury here and we need to get him back going. But when this team’s been at its best it’s when Fred’s been at his best.”
A notable amount of time has passed since that’s been the case.
There have been quality starts along the way — wins in Nashville and Dallas coming out of the all-star break jump to mind — but he hasn’t managed to put together a sustained run of success for two months. In fact, he’s sporting an .892 save percentage across 24 appearances since Dec. 1, dragging his season-long number down to .906 in the process.
“I’ve got more to give,” said Andersen.
What’s made the 30-year-old so special is that he’s both a workhorse and a model of consistency. The Leafs have been able to set their watch to Andersen while seeing him deliver save percentages of .917, .918 and .918 since arriving from Anaheim in Lou Lamoriello’s best trade as Toronto’s general manager.
He’s been the exception rather than the norm.
Goalies are voodoo, they say, in part because they can’t usually be counted on to deliver the same results year over year. Those results are also tied to the play in front of them and the Leafs are in the bottom-third of NHL teams in allowing odd-man rushes and shot attempts from the slot.
As Keefe noted of Tuesday’s game in Pittsburgh, the three power-play goals against were essentially “passed into the net.” They weren’t the type you can fault the goaltender for.
And yet there’s still no getting around the fact the Dane could be better — he’s been better than this for over 200 prior games in a Maple Leafs sweater. And there’s only 21 games left in the regular season for him to rediscover top form.
“I think Fred and [goalie coach] Steve Briere and those guys are working hard every day to get him playing at the level he’s capable of, which is a guy that has the ability to make the easy saves look easy but also the one that makes difficult saves and takes those challenges head-on when we crack defensively,” said Keefe.
With a banged-up blue line and a top-heavy offensive team, there are going to be some cracks in the foundation.
This is what they are.
For now the Leafs will stick with their guy, and try to see him through a tough stretch, and calm the waters. That makes sense. But they may reach a point where loyalty and feelings have to be put aside if he can’t turn back the clock, and soon.