TORONTO – Sheldon Keefe won his long-awaited first home game behind the Toronto Maple Leafs bench much in the same manner as his predecessor enjoyed regular-season success in this building: by dressing the better goaltender.
In a bid to swipe both halves of their American Thanksgiving home-and-home series with the Leafs, the visiting Buffalo Sabres generated the lion’s share of high-danger scoring chances (15-5), pinged three posts, came up shy on a borderline goal-line video review, and left one Frederik Andersen short of victory in a 2-1 overtime nail-biter.
“That’s why he’s one of the best goalies in the league,” said John Tavares, moments after freezing the clock and capping off his third straight multi-point effort.
Tavares wristed a beautiful winner at the end of a marathon 3-on-3 shift, but the captain might never have had such an opportunity were it not for Andersen tracking the puck like a Danish hound for 61 minutes and 45 seconds.
In one fate-determining flash, Andersen sprawled to his left and flung the leather to rob Conor Sheary on a one-timed blast so fierce, it pushed the goaltender’s glove back into the net — but not conclusively over the red line, upon further review.
“That was amazing,” smiled William Nylander. “Kind of saving me. I mean, that was my guy.”
One man’s amazing is another’s injustice.
“I thought we scored one in the second,” Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. “It wasn’t counted, but we buried it in our minds and continued to work.”
To their credit, the Sabres kept pressing.
Moments after denying Sheary, Andersen gloved a Jeff Skinner attempt point-blank, despite having dropped his stick at his feet. He was also bailed out by a couple of musical crossbars and a stung post.
The No. 1 goalie’s highlights were punctuated in mini standing ovations from the otherwise muted crowd and those warm, familiar refrains of “Fred-dy! Fred-dy!”
“I just try to enjoy the great atmosphere and have fun out there. That’s what brings out the best in me,” Andersen said after both his and his team’s 13th win. “It would’ve been nice to take all four points, but we’ll take two.”
On a night when Buffalo’s seven defencemen did a fine job of limiting a dangerous Leafs attack to the perimeter at even-strength, Andersen improved his record to 4-0 under Keefe and must be tempting his bosses to either abandon September’s load-management plan or kick tires on a suitable backup till their toes bleed.
Toronto faces yet another set of consecutive games Tuesday in Philadelphia and Wednesday at home versus Colorado.
Turns out, the Maple Leafs can win the second portion of a back-to-back — if they start Andersen.
“That’s obviously something that is well-documented. The team has performed better when Freddy’s in there, so there’s clearly a trend in that direction,” Keefe said. “We need to figure out why that is. It’s a mental thing, clearly, that we’ve got to find a way to get over.”
After 15 days and at least that many juicy headlines between Leafs dates here at Scotiabank Arena, the fresh-look club’s victory meant something special to the new head coach.
“Certainly, this is the pinnacle,” Keefe said of his first NHL game behind Toronto’s home bench, extra family and friends on hand to watch his line juggles.
“I see it as a great opportunity and a privilege. When you’re sitting down and doing your work every day, you know there’s a lot of people counting on you and a lot of people that care about what you’re doing. That’s pretty exciting.
“That’s part of what drives me.”
To be sure, Keefe and the Leafs are still a work in progress, with Auston Matthews noting that the players are still searching for that “happy medium” between when to create and when to safely chip the puck to space.
This feeling-out period, as the coach tries to blend his systems into the roster’s natural strengths, is being eased by Andersen’s consistency and composure.
Here are the goalie’s save percentages in four wins under Keefe: .986, .919, 1.000, .967.
“It’s nice to have Freddy there, and it’s nice to have a guy that’s capable of that. You’re going to need that at different times, without question,” Keefe said.
In addition to Andersen, part of what’s driving the Maple Leafs these days wears No. 88 and looks like he just stepped out of a salon.
Nylander, averaging a point per game since the coaching switch, notched arguably his prettiest on a second-period power play as he cut across the goal line and backhanded the puck high past Sabres goalie Carter Hutton for his 10th of the season.
Nylander is one of a litany of Leafs talents who appear rejuvenated under Keefe’s possession-first regime. (Andersen’s approach, however, might be the most unchanged, what with having “a buffer” — his term — in goalie coach Steve Briere.)
“I’ve noticed since [Keefe] has come in that guys have just started working harder again and got up for games and been a little more excited to play than they have been in the past. Sometimes, when a change happens, that can happen,” defenceman Cody Ceci said.
“Coming in mid-season, it’s a pretty tough job to do, to get everyone to buy in, and I think everyone bought in right away, so he’s done a great job with that.”
Just as Andersen has done a superb job smoothing out Keefe’s landing and making the new guy look good.