Maple Leafs’ Frederik Andersen channels anger into strong performance

William Nylander scores the opening goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Auston Matthews scores the dagger on the power play in the third period as they beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1.

TORONTO – Alex Killorn got away with one in the third period when he pounced on Frederik Andersen’s head with his knee as the goaltender was in the process of smothering the puck.

Andersen spent the ensuing commercial break jawing with the nearest official, wanting a call.

“He said the puck was loose,” Andersen explained.

Coach Sheldon Keefe also took exception to the non-call, especially in light of Morgan Rielly getting a delay-of-game penalty earlier for crashing into the net and knocking the posts off.

“[The officials said] he needs to find a way to not go into the net. Well, I think you need to find a way to not go into the goalie,” Keefe said. “It probably makes a lot of sense to protect the goalie more so than the goal.”

That Blake Coleman had already clipped Andersen’s head during a cut across the crease in the second period (he got dinged for goaltender interference) underscored Andersen’s craving for protection. The man has a history of neck injuries. (And, no, the Leafs skaters did not rush Coleman or Killorn.)

But the most important Toronto Maple Leaf of the past week channeled that contact into anger. Then channeled that anger into a 32-save, 2-1 victory over a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that has added an element of ornery to its approach.

“I thought it fired me up a bit, and I played with an edge,” Andersen said from the post-game podium, intensity still intact. “That’s huge down the stretch — to play with that little fire. So I thought that helped.”

Leafs fans will like him when he’s angry.

As Andersen held the fort, aggressively cutting angles and greedily swallowing rebounds during the Lightning’s push, those familiar “Fred-dy! Fred-dy!” chants rang through Scotiabank Arena Tuesday and served voluminous reminder that if this club is to make any noise, it will be because Andersen is dialed in.

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“When he plays like that, I think he’s one of the best,” Rielly said.

Confidence, that elusive banshee, cannot be quantified on any stat column or spreadsheet. Yet it seeps into all of them.

How else to justify a power play that, with the same personnel, can look anemic one night and lethal the next?

How else to explain Andersen’s swoons and soars, which are almost always mirrored by his body language and the tenor of his comments?

After Andersen scuffled into February with four consecutive losses and admitted to battling his mental focus, a reactionary segment of Toronto’s fan base began craving more crease time for backup Jack Campbell — the instant fan and dressing-room favourite.

The Maple Leafs are still searching for their first even-strength goal in front of Andersen this March, and yet they’ve still escaped with three of a possible four points in the games he’s started. His save percentages in his past three starts: .926, 1.000, .970.

“Again, at 5-on-5 we were outscored today. That’s been a challenge for us,” Keefe said. “When you’re going up against the best offensive team in the NHL, you’re going to give up a great deal. When we did, Freddy was outstanding.”

Andersen has now earned 11 of a possible 14 standings points in his past seven outings, including two shutouts and two wins over likely playoff opponent Tampa.

He’s giving the Leafs a foothold, buying them time to sort out the other ingredients critical to getting this runaway train back on the rails.

Another key component to Toronto’s recipe for success — and recipe for building confidence — was also uncovered Tuesday: special teams.

After going a season-worst five games (0 for 15) without a power-play goal, Toronto struck twice on the man-advantage Monday, as John Tavares and Mitch Marner helped orchestrate goals by William Nylander and Auston Matthews. And the Leafs’ troubled penalty kill blanked the Lightning in all four attempts.

“Power-play needs to be a difference-maker for us. It wasn’t out west,” Keefe said. “We need it to be a difference-maker, and it was today.”

Sharpened special teams, sharpened goaltending… the picture is far from complete, but some critical pieces are coming together.

“Power-play scoring goals, penalty kill shutting them down,” Matthews said. “That just gives everybody confidence.”

So does a fired-up Freddy.

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