Red-hot Andersen a driving force behind Maple Leafs’ success

Inquiring minds needed to know late Wednesday night.

Is this the best hockey Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen has played during his career in the National Hockey League?

“I don’t know,” Andersen, bashful as usual, said. “I think I just want to take it one game at a time.

“It’s really important to be able to flip the page and stay present because you want to keep going and get ready for the next game. A new team is going to come and it’s going to be a challenge too.”

The Leafs are 10-3-1 in their past 14 games, largely because of stellar goaltending from Andersen, who has successfully put behind a mostly rough month of October to raise his save percentage to .922.

There’s no doubt the Leafs have required Andersen to be sharp each night he skates into the crease. Toronto has allowed 801 shots on goal at even-strength, third-most in the NHL prior to games on Thursday. Andersen’s 648 saves at even-strength easily were the most in the league, with Mike Smith of the Calgary Flames second with 582.

The Leafs have given up at least 40 shots on goal five times this season, all in the past 10 games. Andersen has been in net for each of those five games and the Leafs were 4-0-1.

Gone are the soft goals Andersen was giving up every so often. There hasn’t been much deflation among his Leafs teammates when the opposition does score because it has become Andersen’s habit to make difficult saves look relatively easy.

Andersen’s play has been that much more crucial for a few reasons.

The Leafs’ depth forward has afforded coach Mike Babcock more time to find the most effective line combinations, but just as importantly, Andersen’s performances have given the coach a longer leash in that regard.

If there are defensive-zone breakdowns, or the inability to move the puck up the ice freely, Andersen has been there to shore up when mistakes are made.

Difficult starts, which Babcock must find a way to get out of the Leafs’ system, have been smoothed over on many nights because of Andersen.

“It’s something we really have to clean up,” Leafs winger Matt Martin said. “We seem to be doing that a lot, whether we have a morning skate or don’t have a morning skate, we come out flat and it’s something we have to address, especially at home.

“We should be pumped up to play in front of our fans and we have to make teams realize it’s not an easy place to play.

“We kind of put ourselves behind the 8-ball a little bit, but Freddy has been really good for us. We have to find a way to pick it up another level.”

Frederik Andersen makes a save against the New York Rangers on Oct. 7, 2017 (CP)

In the larger picture, Andersen’s .922 save percentage is his best since his rookie season of 2013-14 with the Anaheim Ducks, when he finished at .923 in 28 games. In the three seasons since, Andersen’s top save percentage came in 2015-16, his last year in Anaheim, when he had a mark of .919 in 43 games.

There have been no indications that Andersen is tiring from the workload, either.

Backup Curtis McElhinney has played in only four games, though that likely will grow to five this weekend when the Leafs have their fifth of 14 back-to-back sets this season, with a visit to Pittsburgh on Saturday followed by a home date with Edmonton on Sunday.

Bottom line is that Andersen has been the Leafs’ most valuable player. As Mitch Marner indicated after Andersen made a season-high 47 saves in the Leafs’ 2-1 shootout win against the Flames, the 28-year-old has been the teammate the Leafs depend on more than anyone else.

Toronto will take a record of 18-10-1 to face Sidney Crosby and the Penguins on Saturday, secure in the knowledge their 37 points have the Leafs sitting firmly in second place in the Atlantic Division.
They wouldn’t have such a lofty spot without their soft-spoken netminder from Denmark.

BABCOCK FOCUSED ON PRESENT

Mike Babcock has a good idea of what’s in store for the Leafs during the rest of December, but the Maple Leafs coach wasn’t worried about peering too far ahead.

The Leafs have 11 games before ringing in the New Year, and just two of them are at the Air Canada Centre.

Proper management of the players’ time in the next four weeks will be crucial, but Babcock only was thinking about the next game as he departed the ACC on Wednesday night.

“We’re going to play Pittsburgh — is that Thursday or Friday? Saturday?” Babcock said. “And then we come home for Edmonton (on Sunday).

“We’re going to do everything we can to win the game in Pittsburgh (before thinking about the next day). That’s how we’ll do it. We’ve got good people that tell us what to do and how to manage it.”

Source:: Toronto Sun – Movies