Maple Leafs hope for consistency as Hutchinson takes control of crease

Tim and Sid discuss if it is time to hit the panic button for the Toronto Maple Leafs, with Frederik Andersen potentially missing an undetermined amount of time to injury.

TORONTO — In a season that’s seen Michael Hutchinson bounce from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Marlies and back to the Leafs again, he’s made a point to control what he can control.

Focus solely on that which can be influenced.

The hope now is his form of goaltending Zen continues yielding dividends with Hutchinson taking control of Toronto’s crease in the middle of a tight playoff race. His game has recently begun to resemble the weather forecast on a muggy summer’s afternoon: Sunny, with intermittent periods of rain.

Hutchinson, to his credit, has rescued a year that once appeared to be spiralling away by winning his last four NHL starts. That was the good news the Leafs tried to comfort themselves with while revealing Tuesday that Frederik Andersen would miss an indeterminate amount of time with a neck injury, although it required them to cover their eyes and ignore the three relief appearances sprinkled between those starts where Hutchinson allowed 10 goals on 46 shots.

“We’ve developed some real confidence when he’s gone in as a starting goaltender and he’s done a great job,” said Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe. “In fact, some of the best starts we’ve had from our goaltenders have come with Hutch in the net here in the last little while. We’ve just got to keep this thing moving along.”

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Fair enough, it’s one thing to be given time to prepare for a start and quite another to be tossed in cold midway through a game where your team is already taking on water.

Hutchinson has proven himself capable of delivering quality outings — just not as consistently as the best of his peers. But as the Leafs headed to Madison Square Garden for Wednesday’s game with the New York Rangers, they seemed confident he could hold the fort in Andersen’s absence.

The 29-year-old seems to have much more faith from the front office than many viewing this situation from outside the dressing-room walls. Not only did general manager Kyle Dubas stick by him during an 0-5-1 start to the year by refusing to acquire any outside help, but he brought Hutchinson back from a spell in the minors after Keefe replaced Mike Babcock behind the bench.

Hutchinson delivered on his second chance with the four victories: A 29-save effort against Detroit; a 24-save night against New Jersey; a 33-save shutout over the New York Islanders; and last Saturday’s 24-save win over Ottawa.

He was also tagged with Monday’s loss after coming in for the injured Andersen. Hutchinson wasn’t at his best during a third period where a 3-1 lead quickly evaporated into a 5-3 defeat against the Florida Panthers — the team Toronto is battling for the final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.

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But Keefe argued that it’s unfair to lay that result on his backup.

“Hockey’s a very funny game. The bounces go one way or the other and you tend to overanalyze things and that’s what we’re trying not to do here,” he said. “We find our way through that, maybe at 3-3 instead of hitting the post, [Auston] Matthews’ shot goes post and in and we win the game, and we’re sitting here and we’re probably talking about how great a defensive game it was all the way through and the fact that we gave up zero shots at 5-on-5 from inside our own zone in the second period.

“So, we’ve got to continue to teach and coach the process here and not get too wrapped up in the bounces and the results — as important as we obviously know the results are.”

That part comes naturally to Hutchinson, a veteran of 125 NHL games who spends as much time fine-tuning the mental side of his game as the physical one. He believes he’s found the proper headspace for success.

“Being relaxed and clear-headed and just kind of letting the game come to me is the biggest thing,” said Hutchison. “Approach it the way I have the last few games and hopefully everything works out.”

The stakes are high for everyone here.

Hutchinson is in a contract year and faces an uncertain NHL future. The Leafs are currently on the wrong side of the playoff cutoff line and desperately want another shot at the dance. Kasimir Kaskisuo, for now Hutchinson’s backup, only has one NHL appearance on his resume and could see action with a three-games-in-four-days stretch on the horizon.

Couple that with the unpredictable nature of Andersen’s injury — Keefe indicated that team doctors are managing his symptoms and labelled him “day to day” — and you have plenty of intrigue in the Leafs’ crease.

Facing an important game, they’re relying on a guy they passed through waivers in November. In the months since, they’ve found more reason to believe in Hutchinson.

“He’s just showing that he’s getting some traction and finding his way,” said Keefe. “I think, of course, the way things finished yesterday [against the Panthers] there’s increased attention to it, but if it weren’t for just that little piece last night then you’re focusing on the fact that — here he is, he’s 4-0, I think he’s had like a .940 [save percentage] or something like that over that time and he’s got a chance to be there for us.”

For good or ill, they need him now.

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