Shortly after defeating the Tampa Bay Lighting 2-1 in overtime on Thursday, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner struggled to find words to describe the play of goaltender Jack Campbell.
"It just keeps amazing you about how hard he works every single day and just comes in here with the same attitude," Marner said. "It's amazing to watch him out there just excel and keep getting better."
Campbell went one-on-one with Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy on Thursday, Although he wasn't busy for much of the first two periods, the Maple Leafs struggled to get some run support for their goaltender.
Trailing 1-0 for much of the game, the Lightning seemingly had the game locked down. They also had numerous breaks to the net where Campbell had to make several difficult saves.
"All of a sudden here comes some of the best players in the world in alone on you, the game is essentially on the line," Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. "That speaks to Jack and his mindset standing in there and keeping our team alive."
Campbell made 24 saves on 25 shots and improved his save percentage to .932 in nine appearances this season. He's been relied upon to help make up for an offense that has averaged just 2.45 goals per game (26th in the league) and his workload is slightly heavier than expected with goaltender Petr Mrazek missing much of the season due to a groin injury.
The Maple Leafs have won four consecutive games to improve to 6-4-1 this season. The results alone should help lift the spirits of a team that dropped the previous four contests.
But as Keefe has dissected the recent performances. There is only one game in that span -- a 4-0 against the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday -- where the Leafs put forth a complete effort.
The power-play continued to be anemic. Despite William Nylander's overtime winner on a 4-on-3, the team struggled to generate chances with a full two-minute 5-on-3 in the first period against the Lightning.
In stretches where the Leafs generated chances, they ran into a hot goaltender or struggled to find their own groove.
Nylander has been the most consistent producer. His overtime goal was his team-leading fifth tally of the season.
Auston Matthews has found his step after a slow start to the season. Understandable, given the off-season wrist surgery that forced him to miss the first three games of the regular season.
He had two assists to go with his two-goal performance against Vegas on Tuesday.
Mitch Marner also had two assists and has played better as of late.
John Tavares sent their game against Tampa to overtime when he scored the tying goal with 41.1 seconds left in regulation.
The offense is slowly finding its way back for the Leafs. But while that's just getting fired up, it's been Campbell who has held the fort.
According to Icydata.hockey, Campbell ranks sixth among goaltenders in Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) through games played on Nov. 4, 2021 with 6.53. That means he has saved 6.53 goals this season compared to if an average goaltender had been between the pipes. That number is over 484:18 of ice time this season.
For comparison, Campbell's GSAA last season was 10.75 (15th) over 1284:25 of ice time. That's just over four more goals saved in just over 1/3 of the time played.
The defense has not played well in front of Campbell this season. And up until recently, he wasn't getting the goal support where his astonishing numbers became necessary, despite any fatigue that may settle in.
"Winning feels great, so we'll take any bumps and bruised to get a win like that," Campbell said.
Although Mrazek is back, he's not at 100 percent according to Keefe. That forced the Leafs to continue to lean on Campbell perhaps more than they had expected. As Campbell continues to perform well, the price to keep his services begins to balloon higher.
An unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, Campbell will likely see a raise above his $1.65 million salary cap hit for 2021-'22. If he continues to put up numbers like he has in 2021, the Maple Leafs may have a hard time fitting him under their payroll. The Leafs have $75,280,616 committed to 15 players next season, according to PuckPedia.com. That leaves approximately $7,219,384 (based on a projected salary cap of $82.5 million next season) to spend on a minimum of five more players.
A lot can change between now and the end of the season. But Campbell, who made himself valuable when previous starter Frederik Andersen went down to injury, has stepped up when other areas of Toronto's game has struggled. It's why Campbell is the early frontrunner for team MVP.