There are many similarities between last season’s first-round matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins. There are many differences too. Frederik Andersen playing at the top of his game is just one of those differences. The Maple Leafs added John Tavares in the offseason and Jake Muzzin just before the trade deadline. Those two additions have been undeniably a major reason the Maple Leafs find themselves up 3-2 heading back to Toronto for Game Six.
Frederik Andersen Playing To Win
Tavares’ presence is especially important as Nazem Kadri sits in the press box after earning his second post-season suspension in as many years. It’s not just Tavares and Muzzin that’s changed the Maple Leafs game though. Nor is it the maturation of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, although that helps as well. The Maple Leafs look much better this year against the Bruins than they have in any of their other recent series against them. Frederik Andersen play is a key reason for that.
The Goaltender Has To Be Your Best Player
Goaltending can be an individual performance at times. You just need to look at Game Five of last year’s series against Boston to see that. It’s not sustainable for winning to need your goaltender to win games in which the team is outplayed. That’s exactly what happened last year. It’s also the reason the Maple Leafs didn’t make it past Boston.
Andersen has an up and down series last year. Some games were out of reach before they started. It wasn’t just that Andersen played poorly. At times he did for sure, but the team in front of him also wasn’t playing a style of hockey that leads to much success. Frankly, it’s surprising they took the Bruins to seven games last year.
Shots On Goal
Interestingly enough, the average shots on goal the Maple Leafs have allowed are exactly the same between last season and this season at 35 per game. In Game Five, perhaps the best the Maple Leafs have looked defensively all series, Toronto allowed 29 shots on goal. That’s still not a small amount, but the quality of those shots has greatly diminished this year. There are fewer open nets for Bruins’ snipers to aim for. Andersen may be just as busy this year according to the shot counter, but he’s less busy when it comes to high-quality chances.
Andersen’s save percentage is .925 this season. That’s up from last year’s .896. He isn’t making mistakes like he did last year. If the Maple Leafs were letting the Bruins top line of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and Patrice Bergeron walk all over them, Andersen would not look as good as he does. It can be a chicken or the egg scenario. Is a goaltender playing poorly because the team in front of him is playing poorly, or would he be playing just as bad if the defence was shutting down the opposition?
We’ll never know if the weak goals Frederik Andersen let in last season wouldn’t have been as prevalent had the team played better overall. Likely Andersen’s play would have reflected the defence’s. At least that’s how it’s appearing to go for the Maple Leafs. That’s a good thing. No team that wants to win a Stanley Cup, let alone more than one, can expect it to happen while abandoning defence and trusting your goaltender to bail them out through four rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It may work for a round or two, but eventually, it will fall through.
This year, the Maple Leafs have improved their defence considerably and Andersen is the one reaping most of the rewards. That’s not to say it’s just the defence that’s enabling Andersen. It starts with the defence. If they play well, Andersen plays well, and he is playing well.
Rested And Ready
Andersen was said to been fatigued last year. That’s why his play dropped off. At least that’s what many claimed was the reason for the drop off in his play. Mike Babcock bought into that to some degree. He played Andersen in six fewer games this season than he did the year before. That may have made some difference. If fatigue was a factor, it may also be more about the in-game requirements that the number of games.
It’s more tiring for a goaltender if the play is consistently in his own zone. Especially with a team like the Bruins who like to move the puck around and get the goalie out of position. The Maple Leafs Corsi For was 47.3% last year. This year it’s 50.9%. That improved play allows Andersen to watch the play from 80 feet away, more often which is far less taxing.
Two Games Remain
While the Maple Leafs are up 3-2 in this series, it’s by no means in the bag for them. Most predicted this series to go to seven games. If it does, the Bruins will have the advantage of going back to Boston. Sunday is the Maple Leafs best chance to win a playoff series since 2004. Win or lose, this team has shown tremendous growth. Andersen has shown that he is the man for the job. As long as the team focuses and continues to improve on defence, they’ll be a formidable opponent for the foreseeable future. Until they can’t resign all their young forwards again that is.
If the Maple Leafs do manage to get past Boston, the door is wide open for them this season. With the Tampa Bay Lightning and Calgary Flames already out, the Maple Leafs may find this year is their best chance at reaching the Stanley Cup Final. That’s something every team is saying. The Columbus Blue Jackets, up next for the winner of this series, are not to be taken lightly. Nor should the Maple Leafs relish a series against either the Washington Capitals or the New York Islanders. Yet with the way the Maple Leafs have been playing against Boston, and with the elimination of the two top regular season teams, Maple Leafs fans have something they haven’t dared think of having in a long while: hope.
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