TORONTO – If there is a goalie controversy in Toronto, it’s this: Does Jack Campbell love his teammates more? Or do Jack Campbell’s teammates love him more?
As an end-game buzzer sounded the death of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 1-6 slump and the long-awaited rise of a healthy Campbell, 21 men skated in happy procession to congratulate Saturday night’s first star, one by one.
The final three players lingered at the end of the queue, bringing a tiny bit extra to the celebration.
Third-string goalie Michael Hutchinson had fetched the game puck to hand to Campbell (“He didn’t have to do that; it coulda went to anybody tonight,” Campbell said, forever paying the good vibes forward). And Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner each took a moment to put their hand on Campbell’s head, look him in the eye and relay a message. Plus a hug.
The exact words will remain private, but rest assured they were more than “good game.”
“I appreciate every teammate, of course, and love them all, but those two guys definitely lead our team,” Campbell said. “They shared some really nice things. I’ll just keep it to myself. It was sincere by them. It meant a lot to me.
“It just meant a lot. Basically, about my battling through the adversity. It's been a long road and tough year with the injury. But those guys mean the world to me. I look up to them. So, it just makes me more motivated to play well next week.”
Rest assured, the seldom-used Campbell will play next week. And, no, there is not a back-to-back on the schedule.
Coach Sheldon Keefe suggested No. 1 Frederik Andersen’s nagging lower-body injury may take the decision out of his hands altogether. (Andersen was deemed unable to back up Saturday after acknowledging both physical and confidence struggles earlier in the week.)
But even a rested Andersen must now concede the crease to see just how far Campbell can run, given that the 29-year-old has his legs back.
At this point, riding Campbell is in everyone’s best interest — and not just because #LeafsTwitter might otherwise riot.
“He’s playing with a ton of confidence. We have a ton of confidence in him,” Zach Hyman said. “He saved every shot, so it makes our life a lot easier.”
In blanking the Calgary Flames 2-0 on Saturday, Campbell posted consecutive shutouts … 22 days apart. He’s made 71 straight saves, blanking the competition for 133 minutes, 27 seconds and counting. Campbell is the first Toronto goalie to post two shutouts in a row since Andersen in November of 2017.
Campbell has a 4-0-0 record in 2021, a 1.00 goals-against average, and a .965 save percentage. He’s also the only NHL-level goalie Toronto has under contract for 2021-22.
Andersen, 31, has admirably carried the heaviest of loads for the entirety of his four-and-a-half years as a Leaf.
Mentally and physically, all that hockey has taken a toll.
Andersen is 13-8-2 this season behind an improved blue-line, and his .897 save percentage signals a career low and a third straight season of decline. Not awful. Just OK.
Never before has Andersen had his ice time challenged like this. The Hutchinsons and Curtis McElhinneys and Garret Sparkses of the world weren’t a threat to grab the ball and sprint.
How Campbell battles — and how the Leafs, in turn, battle in front of him — suggests a longer leash is due.
Campbell was well-protected early, as Toronto rolled four lines, committed defensively, and scored the all-important first goal.
But he came up big on deflections and penalty kills as Calgary poured on the heat. He even stoned Matthew Tkachuk with the old-school, two-pad stack Campbell typically reserves for practice. You know, to make the lads laugh.
“Highly competitive. Never out of the play. Big saves at key times. Great energy about him, both in the crease, body language, all those things. When he comes to the bench to drink water at TV timeouts, he's got a great energy about him,” Keefe described.
“Players really enjoy that about him. I think that's really what you're looking for. The guy doesn't play as much, but when he goes in, it gives the group confidence.”
Small sample sizes be damned: Campbell must be the guy, for now. Winks, stick-taps and all.
Through the emotion of finally returning to the ice after a day-to-day leg injury that stretched three weeks, Campbell summed up his recoveries and setback as “a wild ride.” The valleys? “Super stressful.”
Though Soupy would never dare let that on to the boys.
“You know, he's had days where he's been down and frustrated, but he tries to hide it and just comes with a great attitude,” said Jason Spezza, who provided the game-winner and played with Campbell back in their Dallas days.
Added Alexander Kerfoot: “Any adversity that comes his way, he's able to handle it. And he's the same guy every day at the rink. Just a pleasure to be around…. It doesn't affect his attitude or his energy.”
After pouring so much work into his conditioning and technique since the pandemic hit, working closely with goalie coach Steve Briere, leaning on Andersen and Hutchinson for support, Campbell succumbed to bouts of frustration after only being healthy enough to start one game a month.
Yes, even the happy-go-luckiest of us are still human.
So, after Saturday’s win, Campbell stretched wide to show his appreciation for the troops on military appreciation night, all his teammates for bringing their A-game, and the Leafs’ medical staff.
“They’re incredible. Every day they're there on top of it, and you couldn’t ask for more support than I've gotten. I feel bad putting them in a tough position with this. I guess it’s part of the game, but I haven't really had to go through it much in my career,” Campbell said.
With the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets now on their heels like shoe polish, the Maple Leafs need to start the goalie who gives them the best chance to secure two points.
“It’s a huge win,” Campbell said. “We needed it. We really needed it.”
About as bad as the Maple Leafs need Jack Campbell right now.