As questions hover over Leafs' crease, Campbell has golden opportunity

Mark Giordano scored the winner on the power play as the Calgary Flames beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3.

TORONTO -- It says something about the unexpected turn the Toronto Maple Leafs season has taken that these two statements can both be true:

1. Jack Campbell will make his second start in 53 days when the Leafs complete a back-to-back against the Calgary Flames on Saturday night.

2. Jack Campbell can start grabbing control of his team’s crease if he performs well.

Losses in six of the last seven games can’t be placed exclusively at Frederik Andersen’s feet, nor even can Friday’s 4-3 defeat on an 18-shot night for Calgary. But they’ve chipped away at the confidence in the formerly unassailable No. 1 and that makes Campbell’s opportunity a golden one with his team desperately in need of a win.

“I expect him to battle the way that he has,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “I know he’s played great for us so he’s a guy that goes in with a ton of confidence.”

Where Campbell is health-wise is an open question. He was listed as day-to-day for nearly three weeks after posting a 30-save shutout in Edmonton on Feb. 27 and that followed a month-long absence where he was recovering from a left leg injury.

This is not how the 29-year-old imagined things going after an intense off-season, but he’s still found his way to the door he’s been trying to knock down for more than a decade.

The Leafs had control of the North Division until they stopped getting enough saves. Now Campbell gets a turn. They’ve been the better team on the wrong end of a result too often in the last few weeks, and tilted the ice pretty heavily on Friday night.

They had their highest percentage of scoring chances (76.3) all season, their second-best percentage of shot attempts (65) and their fourth-best expected goals percentage (68.1). They barely gave up anything of quality, but saw a couple unfavourable bounces amount to the difference.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of stuff going on,” said Andersen. “Three of the goals obviously were right through traffic and something I’ve probably got to look at and see what I've kind of done differently to try to fight through it and find those pucks quicker.”

Added Keefe: “I don’t know how many shots we gave up, but not very many. We didn’t give up very many chances at all.”

At 19-10-2, the Leafs are still in prime position. Keefe rightly pointed out that one victory would ease the mounting tension.

But they have also undoubtedly reached a stage where loyalty is of little consequence -- with Andersen in a contract year and stumbling along at a .900 save percentage, after posting a career-worst .909 a year ago.

It’s no small thing that Leafs management thought long and hard about bringing in a replacement in the fall before deciding to stick with Andersen. There’s not much reason to believe that general manager Kyle Dubas will attempt to revisit that search before the April 12 trade deadline either.

Perhaps the short-term answer is Campbell, who is 6-2-1 in limited action with the Leafs and a perfect 3-0 with a .951 save percentage in his games this season. At minimum he should be able to spell Andersen off for more rest during a period where he’s acknowledged playing through minor injury.

The man known as Fredzilla is fighting it right now.

“I know I have the ability to be a great goalie in this league and help the team win a ton of hockey games,” Andersen said this week. “So, I think it’s just a matter of finding that confidence again. And I know it’s right there. There’s just a few things that I need to keep working on and find again.

"I think I’ll be right there and having a great stretch again. The tough part is staying patient and just keep working at the daily things that’s gonna get me success out there.”

It didn’t go his way against Calgary, with Matthew Tkachuk sifting the game’s first shot through traffic and having it glance in off Travis Dermott’s stick. The Leafs climbed out of a 3-1 hole to tie things up and then Mark Giordano got a bounce on a point shot for the eventual winner.

Goaltending can be a highly subjective position. You won’t find a unanimous opinion on what shots should and shouldn’t be stopped. But there’s a question hovering over the Leafs' crease because too many are going in.

“Yeah it’s difficult [mentally] when a night like tonight where everything seems to kind of find a way through traffic,” said Andersen. “I know personally I didn’t lose my abilities to play good and the same goes for our team, too.

“I think we want to get out of this little slump here and start winning some hockey games.”

Whoever is in net when those wins come will almost certainly be staying there.

And on Saturday night, Andersen will be watching from the end of the bench while Campbell gets his chance.

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.