McElhinney’s bump in playing time could benefit Leafs in long run

James van Riemsdyk had two goals and an assist to power the Maple Leafs to a 5-2 win over the Sabres.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — You can forgive Toronto Maple Leafs fans if the upper-body injury of goaltender Frederik Andersen in the home shootout win over Dallas Wednesday has them on shpilkes. The Leafs were going to opt to start their No. 2 man Curtis McElhinney in Buffalo Thursday, the latter of back-to-back games. Effectively there was no change to the lineup, only a what-if to ponder: What if Toronto has to call McElhinney’s number again in a much more meaningful game than a late-season tilt with the going-nowhere Buffalo Sabres?

There wasn’t definitive intel to glean from McElhinney’s performance in the Leafs’ 5-2 win over the host Sabres, who, given the exodus of face-painted fans down the Queen Elizabeth Way, were the second-most beloved team in the KeyBank Center Thursday.

McElhinney made a blocker save on Ryan O’Reilly with the game scoreless in the first minute but soon thereafter he was staked to a lead. At the end of the night he had made 38 saves, 18 in a furious second period when the puck pin-balled all around the Leafs’ goalie on a power play before the second intermission.

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The only blemishes on his night’s work were power-play goals by Sam Reinhart in the first and Jason Pominville in the second. No matter, McElhinney improved his season record to 9-4-1. He came into the game with a .929 save percentage and a 2.27 goals-against average, so those numbers will be fractionally shinier after the fact. “My [career] record has been closer to .500 so this year has been a bit of a surprise,” McElhinney said, keeping his ego in check.

Shinier too is the Leafs record: The win over the Sabres put the Leafs 20 games over .500. Yeah, they’re very unlikely to run down Tampa. Maybe Boston could be a target, though that’s a big ask down the stretch — the win against the Sabres and the Bruins’ loss to the Panthers Thursday, leaves Toronto five points behind the current No. 2 seed in the division. (Boston has two games in hand.)

Buffalo has infamously been a bit of a graveyard for the Leafs over the years and when you looked at the schedule, it looked like a trap game, even if the Sabres were without Jack Eichel. McElhinney credited his teammates with setting the tone early. “It’s a tough building [for us] and I thought we had a good start tonight,” McElhinney said. “I thought we played a pretty solid game for a back-to-back situation.”

One of the old-school hockey canards is that some goaltenders inspire teammates to raise their game. The standard line goes something like: “They play hard in front of him.” Buy it or not, it at least looked that way with McElhinney Thursday.

After notching a hat trick against Dallas, James van Riemsdyk scored twice in the first seven minutes in Buffalo and the die was cast. While Reinhart’s goal brought the Sabres to within one going into the first intermission, they never really threatened to tie the game. When the score tightened, so did the Leafs’ play in their own end. Goals by Connor Carrick and Tyler Bozak stretched the Leafs’ lead to 4-1 in the second and Patrick Marleau snuffed out faint late hope for the Sabres with an empty-netter.

You had to cringe when you saw Leo Komarov collide with linemate William Nylander and limp off with what looked like a hyper-extended knee. What his status will be going forward is to be determined. More worrisome, though, is the status of Andersen in the near future and the weeks ahead.

Before he came to Toronto from Anaheim, the oft-asked questions about Andersen pertained to his ability to stand up to the workload of a No. 1. It looked like he dispelled any doubts with his play in 58 games prior to being knocked out of the win over Dallas Wednesday. Now, those questions will be reheated.

You have to believe that any team’s hopes in the playoffs ride on the well-protected shoulders of its No. 1 goaltender.

Needing some help from a backup at some point in the post-season? Okay, sure. And look at what Marc-Andre Fleury did with Pittsburgh last season when Matt Murray was hors de combat. But Fleury was no typical backup — he was the Penguins’ main man in the Cup run of 2009 and the near-miss the year before. When he drew the assignment, he was no ordinary Yesterday’s Man.

Mike Vernon was another case in point back in 1997. Most figured Chris Osgood, the ostensible No. 1, would get the start in the Red Wings’ post-season, but instead Scotty Bowman went with Vernon, who had a Stanley Cup on his CV. He wound up being good for another ring.

There’s no mistaking McElhinney for Fleury or Vernon. And leave aside the biggest goaltending gamble of all time: the Canadiens’ decision to go with rookie Ken Dryden, he of six career NHL games, instead of Rogie Vachon, a future Hall of Famer.

If Andersen isn’t good to go for a while, well, you’d have to think that the Leafs wouldn’t be completely at sea, at least if you’re looking at the short run. Not that McElhinney has a Cup on his resume like Fleury or Vernon, nor generational upside like Dryden barely out of college. No, McElhinney is now as ever a backup; a fall-back. He does have history, though.

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On the last Saturday night of last season, with the Leafs’ playoff hopes hanging in the balance, Andersen went down in a pile against the Penguins and McElhinney was summoned. The Leafs came from behind in that game and McElhinney wound up making a save on a Sidney Crosby one-timer in the final minute of regulation that clinched the needed two points for a post-season berth. And, yeah, that would be a reason for his teammates to raise their game when his number has been called this season, last night included.

Thursday night in Buffalo wasn’t remotely like the situation that McElhinney was thrust into last April. And Mike Babcock wasn’t ringing alarm bells about Andersen’s injury after the win over Dallas. Andersen could be back in time for Saturday night when the Canadiens visit Toronto. Or not. The Leafs might exercise some caution with Andersen. Or have no other choice. Andersen could be right as rain and good to go the rest of the way and into the post-season. Or maybe get banged up by, say, Brad Marchand or some rules-breaker taking liberties.

Even if he’s not called on in the post-season, it might have been a net benefit that McElhinney had a chance to get a couple of victories in a couple of nights this week and maybe a bit more of a workout down the stretch than might have been anticipated.

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