For the Maple Leafs to take a serious run at a playoff spot, the goaltending of Frederik Andersen will be every bit as important as how the team’s rookies handle the pressure — maybe more.
Andersen certainly showed he was every bit the equal of his idol, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, in Thursday night’s head-to-head battle highlighted by breakaway saves in overtime — Lundqvist on Leo Komarov and Auston Matthews, Andersen ribbing Rick Nash.
In the end, Mats Zuccarello and Mika Zibanejad beat Andersen in the shootout, while only one Leaf — Matthews — managed to solve Lundqvist and the Rangers got credit for the 2-1 win.
“It was tough losing this game, especially when you battle hard out there for 65 (minutes),” said Connor Brown, who scored the Leafs’ only goal in regulation time. “Shootouts give them the extra point. We worry about the 65 minutes before that.”
The overtime was so much fun, Andersen didn’t want it to end — and not just because the Leafs are now a woeful 1-7 in the breakaway competition.
“Pretty much everyone in hockey wanted us to keep going,” said Andersen. “It was a good overtime. But yeah, we haven’t had much success there.”
J.T. Miller tied the game midway through the third period, just as a Rangers power play expired, to end Andersen’s shutout bid.
“We were kind of slow (in the first period),” said Matthews. “They were coming at us. We relied on Freddie to make a few big saves. That’s not how we want to win games.
“We have to clean up some stuff.”
The result meant the Leafs, who have picked up points in three straight games, retained third place in the Atlantic Division and reached the 60-game mark in a playoff spot — a significant target for the club heading into the season.
“At game 60, we wanted to have a chance,” Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “We have a chance. It’s up to us, nobody else.”
The Rangers, meanwhile, seem secure when it comes to wrapping up another playoff appearance, but not necessarily because of Lundqvist. The veteran netminder has been the backbone of the team for over a decade — they have risen and fallen with him — but this year the Rangers have been good even when Lundqvist has been ordinary.
That said, he has certainly been better lately. His last visit to Toronto — a win on Jan. 19 — seemed to kick-start him out of the doldrums. He’s now on a 10-1-2 roll since that one.
Meanwhile, Andersen has been feeling some heat in Toronto’s net. Since that same game, Andersen is 5-4-4 while allowing 40 goals.
There was no thought in Babcock’s mind, however, of playing Curtis McElhinney more, even though the backup has been better lately.
“We need him to be good,” Babcock said of Andersen. “We make mistakes so we need him to be good. He’s got the skill set for that and the mental makeup to do it. That’s what we need, and that’s what we expect.”
Andersen was the star of the first period, with the Leafs up 1-0 but trailing 14-9 on the shot clock including several prime scoring chances for the Rangers. He made highlight-reel saves on Nash and Michael Grabner while short-handed.
“It would have been a good one to win for Freddie,” said Babcock of the netminder, who faced 38 shots to Lundqvist’s 33. “Freddie did everything. It would have been nice to score some goals for him.”
The Leafs were without rookie forward Mitch Marner for the fourth straight game with an upper-body injury. Defenceman Connor Carrick was also scratched, opening the door for Alexei Marchenko to make his Leafs debut. He saw just less than 14 minutes of ice time. Blue-liner Martin Marincin was a healthy scratch for the 10th straight game.
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