Andersen could be difference maker in Maple Leafs playoff hunt

Frederik Andersen has had his ups and downs this season, but his solid play of late is helping the Maple Leafs push for a rare post-season appearance.

The race for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference is uncomfortably close. Third place in the Atlantic Division and the second wild card slot are up for grabs, with six teams vying for one or both of those spots. Can one game make a difference? In the grand scheme of things, it certainly can.

When Philadelphia marched into Toronto on Thursday, two crucial points were on the line. Both teams had success on the power play and the possession numbers were dead even. But thanks to Frederik Andersen, the Maple Leafs won the goaltending battle and that proved to be the difference in a 4-2 victory. Not that Michal Neuvirth was bad for Philly, but he was the second-best netminder in the game and now the Flyers find themselves sinking back down in the standings.

“This time of year, any save, any goal can make a difference in the game,” Andersen said. “You want to be on the right side of that and keep battling.”

For Andersen specifically, that difference could have been a Claude Giroux blast in the third period that caught the Danish netminder between the padding. Andersen said it wasn’t a fun save to make, but I’m sure the win serves as a bit of an ointment.

The Maple Leafs have garnered points in six of Andersen’s past seven starts and really, should have had a couple more wins. He was stellar against the New York Rangers in late February, bailing his squad out in a game where the team constantly seemed to be giving up odd-man rushes, but the Leafs couldn’t give him any offense to work with. New York ended up winning in the shootout (and if anything ends up killing Toronto’s playoff hopes, the shootout will be a main culprit). In his past six appearances, the Danish national is rocking a .933 save percentage and his heroics are obvious to teammates.

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“He’s the real deal,” said center Brian Boyle. “He controls the game and he’s a calm presence back there. You see his angles when things get into flurries; we have a breakdown and he is there. That’s what you need from your goaltender.”

As the Maple Leafs attempt to catch Boston and/or the Islanders down the stretch, Andersen will be the most crucial cog. He’s had some sublime runs during his first year in Toronto, but also some bad skids. The team has three back-to-back sets remaining this season – one of which ends the campaign. Given how close the East is, it’s not likely that last contest against Columbus will be meaningless.

With his 54th appearance on Thursday, Andersen matched his career high. How many of the remaining 16 starts will he see? I would imagine at least 13 or 14. The unknown is how he handles that workload, though it doesn’t seem to be a burning concern in Toronto. For a franchise that hasn’t seen many playoff runs of late, having meaningful games in mid-March is exciting.

“You want to play the same way every game, but it is easier to get motivated for these games,” Andersen said. “You’ve gotta be ready to play and these playoff-like atmospheres are fun, so you want to play well.”

If Andersen can keep up his solid play of late, he and his teammates may end up with a seven-game series on their hands in Toronto.