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Frederik Andersen’s fine play not enough to save Leafs from Rangers

Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen spoils Rangers right wing Rick Nash’s breakaway opportunity on Feb. 23, 2017.

Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports

As Frederik Andersen and Henrik Lundqvist crossed paths at the end of one of the best goaltender duels in recent memory, they gave each other a tap.

"Respect for each other," Andersen, the Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender, said of the exchange with Lundqvist, his counterpart with the New York Rangers.

Andersen deserved a better fate but lost the battle with Lundqvist thanks to a familiar Leafs bugaboo, the shootout. The Leafs could not tiptoe through three periods with a one-goal lead and fell 2-1 in the shootout to the Rangers after a breathtaking overtime period. The Rangers scored twice in the shootout to the Leafs' single goal, leaving Toronto with a 1-7 record in the skills competition this season.

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Lundqvist made 32 saves to Andersen's 37 in regulation and overtime. While the Leafs offence could not solve Lundqvist, the defence managed to block 27 shots in addition to Andersen's saves, showing just how much the Rangers held the edge in play.

"Outstanding," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said of his goaltender's performance. "I thought he was a star. The best thing about [the game] was Freddy was Freddy."

The Leafs did play better in the last half of the game but the Rangers tied the score midway through the third period on a goal by J.T. Miller. The Leafs almost regained the lead with 1:40 left in the third but Morgan Rielly's shot hit the post.

Unlike Tuesday's 5-4 overtime win over the Winnipeg Jets when the Leafs outplayed them by a wide margin but spent most of the night scrambling from behind, it was the Leafs who managed to hang on to a lead (1-0) after two periods despite being dominated by the Rangers. The difference was Andersen, who was nothing short of spectacular in the first 40 minutes, especially in the first period when the Leafs were outshot 14-9. Then he was outstanding in overtime, too, as the Rangers had the most scoring chances in that period, as well, although Lundqvist had to stop Leo Komarov and Auston Matthews on back-to-back breakaways in the final minute. But just after that, Andersen stoned Rangers forward Rick Nash, who was alone in front of the Leafs net.

"[Andersen] did everything for us," Babcock said. "It would have been nice to score come goals for him."

Andersen was the subject of much hand-wringing of late, as the excellence he showed in November and December dribbled away in February. In nine starts since Jan. 31, Andersen had an embarrassing .878 save percentage going into the Ranger game.

Granted, a .920-plus save percentage can be rather difficult to achieve when you play for a defensively challenged team like the Leafs. Much like when Grant Fuhr was headed for a Hall-of-Fame career for the go-go Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s when he routinely surrendered four goals or more a night, perhaps Andersen needs to be judged on a different standard with the Leafs.

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For example, Andersen allowed four goals on 20 shots in Tuesday's win over the Jets and that was good enough for Leafs head coach Mike Babcock.

"I thought he did a good job last game," Babcock said after Thursday's game-day skate. "Things weren't very good for him early but he was able to shut the door and get you a win."

Then again, the coach implied, there were a few too many nights in recent weeks where Andersen could have been better even if his teammates hung him out to dry a few times.

"We need him to be good," Babcock said. "We make mistakes so we need him to be good. We need him to be the top goalie in the league like he's capable of being.

"He's got the skill-set for that and the mental makeup to do it. That's what we need and what we expect."

Judging by his public utterances, Andersen certainly has the confidence necessary to be an elite goaltender. He told television network TSN after the morning skate that he expected his fortunes to improve.

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"The more good you do in practice and off the ice, the more success you'll have on the ice eventually so I'm sure it will change soon," Andersen said. "Every goalie around the league has tough periods of play where you don't really feel like the puck is hitting you as much as you want it to.

"It's something every goalie needs to deal with and it's just a matter of being mentally strong and working through it."

Several hours later, Andersen showed he knew what he was talking about. And he undoubtedly had the Rangers talking to themselves, especially former Leaf Michael Grabner. Among a batch of excellent saves in the first period, Andersen made what some observers were calling his best one as a Maple Leaf on Grabner during a Leaf power play.

The Leafs could not get organized on the power play and committed a series of turnovers. Sort of how they played five-on-five as well. But when they did manage to get a scoring chance, Lundqvist, who struggled in his last appearance in Toronto, was his usual all-world self.

On one of the Leaf miscues with the man advantage, the Rangers mounted a rush that saw Grabner wind up alone on the right side with the puck and an empty net in front of him. But Andersen somehow slid across, flicked out his left pad and made, as the late great Boston Bruins play-by-play man Fred Cusick used to exclaim, "a kick save and a beauty!"

The save was such that the 19,175 fans at Air Canada Centre began chanting, "Freddy, Freddy."

That the Leafs were in position to take advantage of Andersen's fine play was thanks to winger Connor Brown, who made a rare heads-up, hustling play amongst their fumbling. Midway through the first period, Brown zipped into the Ranger zone and fought hard to get the puck from behind the visitors' net. He got it to defenceman Jake Gardiner at the point, who fed centre Tyler Bozak for a long shot. And Brown was at the net to put in the rebound for his 15th goal and force the Rangers into chasing the lead even though they controlled the play.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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