Maple Leafs’ Andersen remaining upbeat through struggles

Auston Matthews scored twice in the third period to help the Toronto Maple Leafs storm back and beat the Philadelphia Flyers 7-6.

TORONTO — Frederik Andersen had never been pulled in back-to-back games during his NHL career and it didn’t go exactly as planned when he returned to the crease on Friday night.

The big Dane is suddenly fighting it in the waning days of a season where he has unquestionably been among the very best at his craft. Given how crucial he is to the Toronto Maple Leafs cause, there has to be a small degree of concern inside the walls here — not to mention some debate about how much more action he should see before the playoffs.

Andersen, to his credit, didn’t attempt to obfuscate the issue after giving up six goals on 29 shots and still managing to survive with a 7-6 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. He acknowledged the mental struggle that’s arrived with the parade of pucks that went by him this week and said he was just glad not to score into his own his goal during one white-knuckle handling off a long clear by the Flyers in the third period.

He was surprisingly cheerful, actually, given how challenging the night must have been. The three-goal rally victory brought relief to every corner of the dressing room and bought Andersen a bit of breathing room to get his own game straightened in a happier environment.

“It gives us another day to keep working it out and that’s the only thing you really can do,” he said. “As a goalie, you’d love to win 2-0 every night but it just didn’t happen so you keep battling and keep trying to be the upbeat personality and have a good attitude
about it.”

That approach can be traced to a meeting between Andersen and Mike Babcock in his childhood home last May. The Leafs coach travelled to Herning, Denmark, to watch the IIHF World Hockey Championship after his team was bounced from the playoffs and met with the goalie and his parents during the visit.

They discussed what would be required from a No. 1 goaltender to survive the roller-coaster, two-month grind of the Stanley Cup playoffs. He also challenged Andersen to take on even more of a leadership role with the Leafs — a message he seems to have taken to heart.

That off-season conversation was revisited informally on Thursday, when Babcock and Andersen chatted again during a Danish-themed team meal after practice. It left the coach feeling confident that this unusual week for Andersen will be nothing more than a blip on the radar.

“I really believe in life that adversity is just speed bumps to get you to another level,” said Babcock. “I believe in Freddie a lot. Our guys believe in him. He’s a real good man, takes things personal and he’ll be great.

“The mental toughness you need to go deep in the playoffs is, you’ve just got to have a belief in yourself. You’ve got to know every day when you come to the rink it’s going to turn out right and then you’re going to be great.

“So, here’s a little test for him. I think these tests are great.”

With backup Garret Sparks due to start in Ottawa on Saturday, Andersen can take a quick breather. It should also allow for a little more work with goalie coach Steve Briere since his next action will presumably come in Nashville on Tuesday.

He is not far removed from superlative play — he heard “Freddie! Freddie!” chanted in all three buildings during a 2-0-1 swing through Western Canada last week — and he can certainly point to some porous defensive zone coverage for what’s happened since.

Even the victory over Philadelphia included another three lost faceoffs that led directly to goals against.

“The last couple games, they’re not completely on him,” said Auston Matthews, who helped fuel Friday’s three-goal comeback in tandem with linemate William Nylander. “I’m sure for him, he’d like to have some of those back, but for us, that’s our guy and we’ve got to play better for him.”

“We’re not worried about Fred at all,” added defenceman Jake Muzzin.

Fair enough, but Andersen still has something to prove this spring. He’s not unlike the Leafs themselves — looking to deliver on all the promise shown these last couple years by taking another step forward.

We’ve seen encouraging signs all season, especially when you consider he was sporting a career-best .924 save percentage on Monday morning. But after getting pulled in losses to Tampa and Chicago, and taking some knocks against Philadelphia, Andersen was back at .918 — the exact number he posted as the Toronto starter in 2016-17 and 2017-18.

He struggled badly last March with an .884 across 10 starts and had a couple tough outings during the seven-game loss to the Bruins. There was some thought he might have burned out by the end, although he never admitted as much publicly.

The Leafs entered this season hoping to limit his workload and they’ll succeed in large part because of a groin injury that sidelined him from late December through mid-January. He’s now on pace for 61 appearances after seeing 66 each of the last two years, although Babcock hinted last week he might be restricted even more than normal down the stretch.

“We’ve got the schedule all laid out,” he said last Friday in Vancouver. “I feel he’s going to get to be around that — 60 — but who knows?”

The last five periods and change might affect the plans. You can probably make an argument for a little more rest after seeing Andersen give up 14 goals on 62 shots this week, by far his toughest three-game stretch all year.

At least it gave his teammates the chance to repay him for all the times he’s bailed them out.

After falling behind 5-2, the Leafs allowed just one shot on goal in the next 13 minutes while completely erasing that deficit. Andersen had to make sharp saves on Travis Konecny and Shane Gostisbehere from there and saw Matthews scored twice to pull out the win on a night where Toronto had 51 shots and controlled more than 65 per cent of the even-strength attempts.

“I’d love to handle [the struggles] better, I think. Get out of it quicker,” said Andersen. “Just trying to work my way out of it and glad to see we get two points today. Guys were great at getting pucks to the net. I thought we played really good today, so I was obviously happy to get the win.”

Sure beats the alternative.

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