Maple Leafs’ Kaskisuo looking for another shot after rough NHL debut

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.

The last time Sheldon Keefe was behind the bench, managing a goaltending tandem comprised of Michael Hutchinson and Kasimir Kaskisuo, and the games were critical, know this:

Kaskisuo was the one the coach entrusted to get the job done.

Despite his undrafted status and his less proven track record as a professional, Keefe gave Kaskisuo the lion’s share of starts during the Marlies’ three-round playoff run last spring.

Kaskisuo saw action in a dozen games, going 9-3 with a 2.14 GAA, .927 save percentage and a shutout. (Hutchinson, meanwhile, saw just 77:23 of AHL playoff action last spring and registered a .821 save percentage.)

“What I’ve come to know about Kaz is he’s a guy that enjoys big moments, enjoys challenges,” Keefe told reporters upon Tuesday’s call-up in the wake of Frederik Andersen’s neck injury. “He had a real up-and-down season with the Marlies, but down the stretch of the season and into the playoffs, he was outstanding. He was a massive reason we were able to sweep a very good Rochester team in the playoffs last year.

“I’m sure if called upon, he would be anxious for an opportunity.”

Oh, he is.

And while Hutchinson has earned the right to start Wednesday in New York and push for his fifth consecutive Leafs win in games he starts, it’s no stretch to imagine Kaskisuo seeing action Friday (versus Anaheim) or Saturday (at Montreal).

Andersen is listed as day-to-day.

Kaskisuo, 26, says he’s taking things hour by hour.

Yet the Finnish native has been eager to build upon his one lousy, wonderful NHL start.

Back on Nov. 16, when Hutchinson was deployed to the minors on a confidence-finding mission and the Maple Leafs appeared to be passive-aggressively trying to get Mike Babcock fired, Kaskisuo made his NHL debut in Pittsburgh — and was promptly devoured by wolves.

Getting pummelled behind a token effort put forth by the skaters in front of him, Kaskisuo allowed six goals on 38 shots in his dream-come-true game. The Leafs lost 6-1 to the Penguins, and Babcock was axed four days later.

Getting shelled only whetted his appetite.

“Things didn’t really go our way in the Pittsburgh game,” Kaskisuo understated in an interview with Sportsnet.

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Must’ve been difficult, being under siege and the guys in front not delivering top effort?

“It was actually kind of easy,” Kaskisuo replied. “You realize that’s your dream and just trying to enjoy every shot, every second of the game.

“Of course, the day of was kind of crazy, trying to stay as distracted as I could. But once the game started, it felt like a normal game. I mean, I have no reference point for what to expect from an NHL game, so I don’t really know if that was a really hard game or really easy game. I just tried to make all the saves that I could.

“Just some bad luck there. It didn’t really matter; I was just so excited to play an NHL game. Tough start but hopefully (I’ll) build on it.”

And he has.

Kaskisuo’s regular-season AHL save percentage in the minors has jumped year-over-year (from .896 to .912), he earned an invite to January’s AHL All-Star Classic, and the six-foot-three Finn looks back on his November call-up as a two-week reward for all that hard work on the farm.

The eyes are wide, the nerves are tingly, and the excitement is tempered with respect.

“It’s crazy. Like, looking around our locker room and seeing, like, these are the guys I’m practising with and on the same team,” Kaskisuo said. “For me it’s a comfortability thing. I’ve known Sheldon for about four years now, and it’s fun to have him around.”

No question, Andersen’s injury has forced the Maple Leafs to reach deep in the system. But Keefe has had a front-row seat and watched Kaskisuo at his best.

And if the kid gets another shot this weekend, he’ll need to be at it.

“We just gotta keep this thing moving along,” Keefe said. “We’re into the meat of it here now. No matter who we have, I’m comfortable with them.”

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