Maple Leafs’ Andersen feeling confident despite loss in return from injury

Is this how it ends?

With a whimper, not a bang?

With not the slightest hint of controversy?

Without a single fan in attendance to chant “Fred-die!”?

With the name “Rittich” — a goaltender who didn’t so much as dress Wednesday night — trending on Toronto Twitter, for goodness sakes?

While we are certainly not ready to proclaim the ’s Maple Leafs era over before the puck drops on the post-season — playoff runs can unravel best-laid goalie plans faster than you say “Jake Oettinger” — there is no doubt that for the first Leafs series in five years, the crease will no longer be Andersen’s to lose.

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Making his first NHL appearance in 60 days, the 31-year-old’s rehabilitation pitch was the most meaningful story in the otherwise meaningless game.

Andersen and the organization have gone to great lengths to set him up as best as possible for success when he is called upon.

First, GM Kyle Dubas first made use of an AHL conditioning stint with the Marlies. Then he stretched the salary cap to its limit (and sacrificed game reps for skaters , and ) in order to accommodate one last regular-season NHL start for Andersen, an overworked anchor in this city for half a decade.

Andersen allowed four goals on 28 shots in a 4-3 overtime loss to the , who squashed the Leafs’ Presidents’ Trophy bid and deserved full marks for riding out their season on a high note.

“He got through the game. He moved well. I would say that’s what stood out,” coach Sheldon Keefe assessed. “That’s really what the game was about is just getting him through the 60 minutes and feeling good. By all accounts, it seems that that was the case.”

Andersen finishes 2020-21, his critical UFA contract season, with a 13-8-3 record, 2.96 goals-against average, and .895 save percentage. All these numbers are career worsts.

There is no more runway to get Andersen’s knee feeling strong and get the goaltender feeling confident – two intertwined goals since his mid-March hiatus.

If he appears in a Maple Leafs net again, it’ll be under the bright lights of a pressurized playoff series. For the first time in Andersen’s tenure, Toronto will be a heavy favourite when it opens its series versus Montreal at home next week. And for once, the defence deployed in front of the Leafs’ crease will rank among the league’s best.

Yet it appears only a significant stumble from Jack Campbell — seizing the No. 1 role with a franchise-record-breaking 17-2-2 record and a sparkling .923 save percentage — will pave the way for an Andersen redemption tale.

“He’s put in so much work. We’ve witnessed it every single day at the rink, just to get himself prepared and back as healthy as possible to obviously get in the net and get a feel for it,” said close friend .

“I thought he played really, really well tonight. At times, we weren’t good enough for him. We didn’t really give him, on a couple of those, that’s purely on us. I thought he looked good. He looked confident. I think that’s all you can really ask for from a big piece like him for this team.”

Former Leafs (a screened point blast) and (a hardworking shorthanded strike, his NHL-best fifth) solved Andersen with excusable goals. But rookie call-up , making his NHL debut, beat him from a tough angle, and twisted the knife nine seconds into OT.

Andersen chalked up the goals to “some weird plays and some unfortunate bounces.”

“Maybe that’s rust. Maybe I could do a few things differently [and] those would be saves, but overall felt really good,” Andersen said. “I felt like I was moving really well. Felt confident out there making some plays. Just calm in the net.”

To be fair, the Leafs in front of Andersen were playing cautious. Probably too calm.

“Just no life, no energy,” said.

Surely, the mind cannot help but wander to Game 1. Self-preservation is natural.

“That’s the biggest mental hurdle right now,” Keefe said. “Guys want to play well; they want to win the game. But our guys know what’s around the corner here, and nobody wants to be going into it too banged up. So, you’re a little shy on everything that you’re doing and you’re just not quite into it mentally. But it’s a 56-game season and we’re only through 55.

“We don’t have the [cap] flexibility to be able to make sweeping changes and sit multiple people. We’ve got to find a way to stay in it mentally enough to make sure that we don’t let our guard down. That’s when bad things tend to happen, injuries and such.”

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Yes, Keefe only need look at his goaltender to see the toll injuries and such can exact.

During his five regular seasons in Toronto, Andersen has started 267 games, faced 8,466 shots, made 7,740 saves, and stood in that crease for 12,625 minutes. Only in Winnipeg has seen more work during that span.

So, no, Andersen’s Leafs days won’t end like this. If anything, they’ll end with more labour — even if that’s behind the scenes.

“Just keep working in practice, like I have been,” Andersen said of his next step.

“I’m looking forward to this journey with this team. Every day is fun to be around this team and battle with the guys. Everyone can do their best and contribute. That’s what I’m going to keep doing.”