When the Maple Leafs open this pandemic-era Stanley Cup tournament in Toronto on Sunday, there will be plenty about the surroundings they won’t recognize.
There will be no adoring fans in the stands, no pesky media cluttering up the dressing room. But as for that other staple of life in the centre of the hockey universe — that bit of mental baggage known as pressure — it will be omnipresent, as ever. When you play for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004, you come to expect as much. When you’re a core piece of a Shana-plan that’s more than six years old and yet to deliver a payoff of competitive consequence, you come to understand you’ve got something to prove, the sooner the better.
John Tavares, who was handed the captaincy this season despite previously being a part of one career NHL playoff-series victory, would presumably like to make the case he is a better leader than his sparse resumé suggests. Leading scorer Auston Matthews will have a chance to lay out an argument that he’s the best goal scorer on the planet, even if he missed out on a truncated bid for the Rocket Richard Trophy by a single tally. Mitch Marner will be on a mission to show that his blasé performance in the 2019 first round was a blip, not a pattern. William Nylander, he of the three goals in 20 career playoff games, would surely like you to believe he is better than those numbers.
But there isn’t a Maple Leaf with more riding on the result of the best-of-five play-in series with the Columbus Blue Jackets than Frederik Andersen.
With the NHL suddenly stuck in a flat-cap era — with Andersen heading into the final year of a contract that pays him an average of $5 million (U.S.) a year — the Leafs will soon be staring down a tricky decision in goal. If Andersen, who will turn 31 in October, doesn’t finally cement himself as an indispensable part of a winning playoff team, it might make sense for the club to consider going cheaper.
Heading into his fourth playoff series as Toronto’s No. 1 netminder, Andersen is still searching for a signature victory, this while dragging around a .421 playoff winning percentage that doesn’t exactly say “franchise cornerstone.”
Which isn’t to say Andersen has been anything but a consummate professional since he arrived in Toronto in 2016. He’s been nothing short of the hardest-working goaltender in the league as a Maple Leaf. No NHL netminder has been asked to endure more starts or stop more shots than Andersen has weathered in Toronto. He’s been a workhorse, and a skilful one.
For all that, there’s been something missing. So now would be a good time for Andersen to steal a series — or, at the very least, give Toronto’s potent offence a viable chance to win this series against John Tortorella’s uber-disciplined forecheckers from Columbus.
At least one expert observer believes Andersen looks poised to be impressive.
“Andersen has been a little bit of a slow starter at times. But from what I saw in the exhibition game (a win over Montreal), I think he’ll be good to go right out of the box,” said Steve McKichan, the former Maple Leafs goaltending coach. “There’s a calmness and a poise in his game you notice. He’s not fighting pucks like he sometimes does.”
That’s an observation built on a small sample size, of course. But such is the nature of the current moment. Goaltending always has the potential to be any given team’s playoff trump card. Now, thanks to a four-month hiatus and a training camp capped by a single exhibition game, it’s a tough-to-predict post-season wild card. Heading into Saturday’s action, a handful of the NHL’s 24 tournament teams hadn’t even decided on their opening game starters. Tortorella, the Columbus coach, had vowed to leave his choice between Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins — both goaltenders without a single NHL post-season game of experience — until the last minute.
“I don’t profess to know or want to know about goalies. I just want them to stop the puck,” Tortorella said in the lead-up to the series. “We’re going to wing it.”
If they’re going to wing it, they’d be wise to do it cautiously. To some eyes the unprecedented circumstances seem to be a recipe for potential misfortune.
“Goalie coaches in the NHL right now will be mindful of one thing: You can’t hurt your guy,” McKichan said. “You’ve got to be very careful. Because it’s early season and they’re susceptible to injury.”
“Very susceptible,” McKichan said. “For sure, in the first round, you will see some prime-time (goaltenders) go down with hips, groins, glute muscles. It’s not for lack of preparation and it’s not because they don’t have the best trainers in the world. It’s just when you go from zero to 100 with everything on the line, and you’re reaching and stretching, it’s not practice anymore. And that’s when you rip stuff.”
Andersen, though he has battled his share of injuries during his time in Toronto, has ranked among the most durable netminders in the league over the past handful of years. If disaster strikes, it might not be a comfort to Leaf fans that Toronto backup Jack Campbell owns precisely as much playoff experience as Columbus’s pair of possibilities. Then again, when the circumstance is so thoroughly unprecedented, a case can be made that every athlete is in some ways unproven.
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“The best team is not going to win the Stanley Cup this year,” McKichan said. “The team that’s going to win the Stanley Cup is the one that doesn’t get COVID, doesn’t get hurt, and their goalie gets hot for about a month or two. That’s who’s going to win the Cup.”
In other words, for Andersen, the task is simple: Avoid the looming spectre of the Leafs pondering a change of direction in goal, avoid injury, and avoid losing three of Toronto’s first five games. And also: Do your best to avoid the deleterious effects of the pressure. Everyone who has ever worn a Maple Leafs sweater has carried around their share of the stuff. Distant though the history, it’s important to remember that plenty of those guys found a way to win all the same.
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