KOSHAN: Campbell has proven he deserves Maple Leafs’ net for Game 1 of the playoffs

When asked earlier this week about the plan for goaltender Frederik Andersen, Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe indicated the club would have a better idea after practice on Wednesday.

Andersen’s workload has been increasing since he returned to the ice for practice last week, but there hasn’t been much clarity from the Leafs as to when Andersen might see game action.

Recovering from a knee injury, Andersen hasn’t played since March 19.

If the Leafs still are mulling whether Andersen should be in goal for the opening game of the Stanley Cup playoffs, they shouldn’t be.

Jack Campbell has earned the right to be in the Toronto net for Game 1 of the first round, whenever that happens to fall on the calendar.

Nothing that happens in the Leafs’ final four games of the 2020-21 regular season, barring what would be an unexpected stumble by Campbell, should change that.

If the Leafs can make it work with the salary cap, then get Andersen into a game. Perhaps 60 minutes of work would help Andersen get comfortable heading into the post-season. On the other hand, if Andersen was to play next Wednesday or Friday in one of the Leafs’ final two games, whatever he does might not matter by the time the playoffs start.

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Either way, there shouldn’t be much of an argument.

Any coach will dress a group that he thinks will give his team the best chance to win, and with the Leafs right now, that group is the one that has Campbell in net.

Campbell has rebounded nicely from a little swoon, which for him was three losses, including one in overtime. And in six starts since being pulled on April 15 against Winnipeg, Campbell is 4-0-2 with a .929 save percentage.

Overall, Campbell’s numbers are non-negotiable. In 19 games, he is 15-2-2 with a .925 save percentage. Among National Hockey League goalies who have played in at least 19 games, only five have a better save percentage.

To say his Leafs teammates love playing in front of Campbell would be selling it short. Whether it was when Campbell was racking up 11 victories to start the season, setting an NHL record, or in the past handful of games, when he has consistently provided his team with a a chance to win, Campbell has had his teammates’ back.

“He deserves all the confidence in the world with what he has been able to do, the work he puts in and the results that are coming,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said after Toronto lost in overtime against the Canadiens on Monday night. 

“To watch him do his thing and have fun and play and win, that’s what team sports is all about. You’re just proud of him.”

With Andersen, the argument for giving him the crease for Game 1 would have had more weight had he been having a Vezina Trophy-type season before he was forced out. That’s not what was happening.

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In 11 games between Feb. 13 and March 19, Andersen had a save percentage over .900 in just five of them, and compiled a record of 4-6-1.

On the season, Andersen is 13-8-2 with a save percentage of .897.

Did the injury have an impact on the ability of Andersen to do his job properly? It might have. One has to consider, though, that there were nights when he was making difficult saves. At the same time, soft goals against became a habit that Andersen couldn’t shake.

That sort of thing has not been an issue for Campbell.

The Leafs might not have known what they had in Campbell before this abbreviated season started. Yes, they were assured that they had a sound backup who could step in every so often and provide sharp work in relief of Andersen.

Now, the Leafs know that in Campbell, they have a goaltender who provides excellence more often than not. We haven’t been able to say that about Andersen for some time.

At the same time, Campbell recently has been able to steer clear of the team’s medical offices.

“I can’t say enough amazing things about him,” Leafs centre Auston Matthews said. “We just want him to continue playing like that, having fun and playing confident which he has been. It has been awesome to see.”

So let’s see it in Game 1 of the playoffs.

tkoshan@postmedia.com

twitter.com/koshtorontosun

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