BUFFALO, N.Y. – As a fatalistic fanbase holds its collective breath, we can’t yet be sure what knocked Frederik Andersen out of Saturday’s game or whether he’ll be available to the Toronto Maple Leafs again soon.
But there were some clues dropped before the team boarded its bus home.
The most notable of them came from head coach Mike Babcock, who used an interesting choice of words in describing the scenario that saw Andersen lifted with an “upper-body injury” after a busy first period against the Buffalo Sabres.
“Obviously, the other team’s doctor thought he should come out of the game, so he came out of the game,” said Babcock. “So once our doctor has seen him tomorrow then I’ll have a better handle on what’s going on and I’ll be able to tell you.”
The Leafs’ team doctor, Noah Forman, was not part of the travelling delegation at KeyBank Center.
Babcock’s characterization of what happened seemed to point to the possibility that Andersen was pulled as part of the NHL’s concussion protocol, which was broadened this season to include central league spotters who have the authority to remove players “displaying visible signs of concussion under the protocol, following a direct or indirect blow to the head.”
Andersen was involved in two first-period collisions – one with Buffalo’s William Carrier and another with Evander Kane. Cameras caught the goalie shaking his head shortly after Kane fell on him.
Babcock didn’t want to elaborate when asked if the Leafs took any issue with the decision to remove Andersen from the game.
“Don’t read into anything,” he said. “I just know I talked to our trainers – I didn’t go back to our trainers after, I haven’t done anything. So we’ll give you a report on, what day do we practice? Tomorrow’s Sunday, [so] Monday.”
This can’t be labelled a disaster, not yet.
It would certainly seem to be a positive sign that Andersen wasn’t taken to hospital and walked out of the arena in a suit midway through the third period of what became a 5-2 loss.
However, the Dane does have a concussion history – his last documented one came with Anaheim in April 2016 – and the Leafs don’t have much margin for error as they try to secure a playoff berth.
After watching Andersen face 16 shots in the opening 20 minutes on Saturday, it came as a surprise when backup Curtis McElhinney took the ice to start the second period. Babcock had no idea anything was up. Neither, seemingly, did any of his teammates.
The game quickly faded from view.
“It’s tough,” said centre Auston Matthews. “I mean I didn’t see what happened.”
“Well we’re not sure what it is yet,” added defenceman Morgan Rielly. “But he’s a huge part of this team, he’s been playing the best hockey of his career, in my opinion, he’s been a big part of what’s going on. So we’ll have a discussion and we’ll find out what the deal is.”
Toronto still owns third place in the Atlantic Division, but it doesn’t have much margin for error with the Bruins now one point behind. The Islanders (three points) and Lightning (four points) remain close, too.
Should the Leafs be without Andersen for any length of time, they’d likely be looking at a tandem of McElhinney and 23-year-old Garret Sparks, who currently has a .925 save percentage in the American Hockey League but struggled over 17 NHL appearances last season.
The organization has not left itself with a proven Plan B beyond its No. 1 man.
Andersen was making his career-high 61st appearance on Saturday because the only time he’s sat out all year is in the second half of back-to-backs. Worse still, he had been delivering his strongest play since arriving in Toronto with a .938 save percentage over the last 13 games.
He was a major reason for the enthusiasm that accompanied the team to Buffalo for a road game that felt like it was being played at Air Canada Centre.
“It was great,” said Matthews. “A lot of blue jerseys in the stands, a lot of Maple Leafs jerseys. We travel pretty well all across the country but especially when you’re just across the border here.”
The enthusiasm dropped considerably once Andersen was lifted from the game and Jack Eichel scored two second-period goals, punctuating the second by pounding the glass in front of a couple fans wearing Leafs sweaters.
Even seeing Matthews match Wendel Clark for the franchise record with 34 goals as a rookie couldn’t raise spirits for too long.
With only eight games left to play, basically any doomsday scenario for the Leafs crashing out of the playoff picture involved them losing their workhorse goaltender.
However, it’s important to note that Babcock wouldn’t even contemplate the possibility of a stretch drive without him when speaking to reporters.
“Well I’m not doing that because I don’t speculate about stuff,” he said. “I told you what I know and you guys can get paid to speculate, so you guys do that.”