PHILADELPHIA – My goodness the Toronto Maple Leafs have needed this.
Strong words, tough talk, something – anything – to snap them to attention. A little fire from an unlikely place.
They have kind of been cruising through this season of heightened expectations, playing well enough to sit comfortably in a playoff spot but a few notches below their potential. There’s been no urgency, and perhaps a little complacency, and after yet another blown third-period lead and a fourth straight loss, Frederik Andersen had finally seen enough.
“We’ve got to regroup,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out who wants to commit to playing for the team.”
That was just how the soft-spoken goaltender started his scrum with reporters following Thursday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. His words grew stronger from there.
What irked him most was how they’d taken a well-earned 2-0 lead at the second intermission and somehow turned it into a 2-2 tie within minutes. First Mitch Marner was stripped of the puck at the side of his own net for a Nolan Patrick goal, then Toronto’s ice-cold No. 1 power-play unit allowed Wayne Simmonds to get in on a short-handed 2-on-1 rush with Valtteri Filppula.
The way that second goal materialized left the Andersen fuming. His teammates turned the puck over in the high slot at the other end of the ice and didn’t have any numbers back in support.
“Yeah [I was frustrated],” said the Dane. “I think a lot of guys on the bench, too, are pretty frustrated not being on the power play and seeing that kind of effort. I think we’ve got to look each other in the eyes here and determine where we want to go from here.”
There was clearly an implication that not everyone is showing the same level of commitment here. Without naming names, he was pointing a finger at teammates.
No one is in a better position to do so given how Andersen has taken his game to another level this season – posting a .922 save percentage despite facing nearly 100 more shots than any other goaltender in the NHL.
Had he given them just average goaltending this season, there’s no way the Leafs would be sitting with a 25-17-5 record right now and a 12-point cushion for third place in the Atlantic Division.
“He’s been the backbone for us,” said teammate Nazem Kadri, when told of Andersen’s post-game comments. “I don’t think anyone wants to go into the third period up a couple goals and lose. I can understand his frustration, but we’re all in the same boat.”
The last stretch of games has been particularly tough on the guy manning the crease.
Andersen was less than five minutes from registering a shutout against Columbus on Jan. 8 – only to see the Blue Jackets score two late goals and hand Toronto a 3-2 overtime loss. Two nights later, he gave up the losing goal to Ottawa with three minutes left in regulation after teammate Morgan Rielly made an ill-advised pinch to allow an odd-man rush.
Next up came Tuesday’s game against St. Louis, where he held the Blues off the scoreboard for 59 minutes and then had the defensive coverage break down in front of him during a 5-on-6 situation. He had no chance on the tying goal and the Leafs lost in overtime.
Then they arrived in Philadelphia and did it all again.
“You do it a second time and now, suddenly, it gets in your head,” said coach Mike Babcock. “There’s no reason to let things get to your head. We’re going through a spell where we’re not as good as we can be, let’s find a way to dig out. That’s what we’ve got to do tomorrow.
“We’ve got to get our head right and compete.”
It’s one thing when those comments come from the coach and quite another when they’re made by a guy you’re battling beside.
The Leafs are a team without a captain and, quite frankly, haven’t really needed one these last few seasons. But the stakes are a little different in 2017-18 than they’ve been before and something needed to be said during this swoon.
Andersen was unequivocal in his assessment of where they’re at. It all comes down to a lack of execution and mental errors in his mind. The sort of thing that can be corrected through self-reflection and stronger focus.
“I don’t think we’re tired,” he said. “I think it’s lack of effort at certain points and it can’t happen. We’ve got to figure this out if we want to play any meaningful hockey later. We’ve got to figure it out.”
There should be an interesting atmosphere when they take the ice for practice in Ottawa on Friday afternoon. They need to change something with 35 regular-season games still to play.
“We’re sitting pretty good,” said Andersen. “I think we’ve got it pretty comfortable. There can’t be any reason for not playing the right way because we’ve got to be ready when it comes to past the all-star break here.
“It’s going to be a lot tougher for everyone, [with] teams trying to catch us and we can’t stop at this.”
On Saturday night we’ll find out who was listening to him.