TORONTO -- Call off the hounds.
Crazy as it might sound not even a full week into the NHL season, they had already started to gather outside Scotiabank Arena.
All it took was for Frederik Andersen and Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe to acknowledge that the goaltender was not at his best during Friday’s loss in Ottawa for the whiff of controversy to waft through the air.
Presumably, now, that talk should disappear as quickly as it arrived. Andersen was rock solid during a 3-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets that calmed the waters on a number of fronts.
“It was a much simpler game for Fred and he looked extremely confident and in control here tonight,” said Keefe. “So that gives us confidence as a team and it should give him confidence, too, that whatever he has done to prepare from last game to this one, it benefitted him.”
It had been an unusual 48 hours between starts: Andersen didn’t dress at all for the second half of the back-to-back against the Senators, getting in extra work with goalie coach Steve Briere on Saturday morning before watching Jack Campbell play while Aaron Dell backed up.
That wiped his schedule clean of the typical game-day meetings plus the extra stretching and mental preparation the second goaltender goes through even when not likely to see any action.
“A little new thing we’re trying,” said Andersen. “I think it was good. ... I got to stay at the hotel a little bit longer and just come for the game.”
There’s a decent chance it’s a one-off after Dell got claimed by New Jersey from the waiver wire on Monday, leaving Michael Hutchinson to move up to Toronto’s taxi squad as the No. 3 goaltending option.
That won’t bother Keefe since he didn’t think there was any magic in the plan.
All it did was buy his No. 1 guy more time to sharpen his game following training camp that included no exhibition games and a frantic charge towards the season. Still, it was reassuring to see Andersen confidently turn aside 27 Winnipeg shots, arguably the best of them against Mark Scheifele late in a first period where the Leafs controlled zone time but hadn’t yet grabbed a lead.
“It was his best game, for sure, just the way that he tracked the puck,” said Keefe. “He looked super calm in there. I think it’s also not a coincidence that it was probably the easiest night he had in front of him tonight. You know we didn’t give up very much at all and when we did there wasn’t much by way of second chances in around the net.
“We did a much better job in that area.”
There are a couple obvious reasons why Andersen’s play is under such scrutiny. He’s in a contract year and coming off the worst statistical season of his career, for starters. Plus the Leafs explored the goalie market for a replacement before bringing him back this fall.
But, to let you behind the media curtain, it’s also because this has been a non-story for so long and the possibility of intrigue now exists.
Andersen has played 247 games for the Leafs since arriving here in 2016, with Curtis McElhinney next on the franchise’s list during that period with 32 appearances. Campbell has seven games under his belt for the blue and white.
However, with huge expectations and an uncertain future beyond the summer, the tectonic plates are shifting beneath the surface. Any existing loyalties aren’t likely to outlast a run of substandard performance.
And for an offensively-inclined team that has historically struggled to lock games down, you can’t have a goalie fumbling away strong efforts like the one we saw against Winnipeg. That’s where Andersen made some big strides. The Leafs controlled puck possession and the entirety of the second period and still found themselves in a tight 2-1 contest with 20 minutes to play.
“If anything, it made it harder for us in the third period,” said Keefe. “I think hard is good for our team with where we need to grow.”
Andersen is a stay-in-the-moment performer, the kind who would never let you know if he felt outside pressure. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.
He turned aside 12 third-period shots and took a second star turn when the buzzer sounded.
There will be more nights off for him than usual with a compressed schedule that includes four games in six days this week, but performances like this will quell the outside concern.
“Freddie’s one of the best in the league,” said Leafs captain John Tavares. “We’ve got so much faith in him. … Just being well sorted defensively without the puck and working to get it back will make life easy on him because we know he’s going to make the saves when it’s predictable and he’s able to challenge and be aggressive and be the netminder that he is.”