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opinion

It was the final game of the NHL’s regular season and meant nothing for either the Montreal Canadiens or the Toronto Maple Leafs but call it a statement game for Frederik Andersen.

As in, a message to his teammates and the fans that the Maple Leafs goaltender is back in form for the playoffs after Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre.

For a good stretch of the season, from November into March, with the exception of a tough two weeks in January, Andersen was his team’s best player. Forget Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner – without Andersen back there cleaning up his teammates’ many, many defensive shortcomings, the Leafs would not have come close to setting franchise records this season in points at 105 and wins at 49. Nor would Andersen have his own franchise record for wins by a goaltender, 38, established in Saturday’s 4-2 decision over the Canadiens.

Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen.John E. Sokolowski/Reuters

That kind of assignment means Andersen would never sport any flashy statistics. His goals-against average by the end of play on Saturday was 2.81, good for 31st in the NHL, and his save-percentage was .918, a little better at 19th in the league. The only categories in which Andersen led the league this season were shots-against – 2,211 in 66 games for an average of 33.5 – and saves (2,029).

He was also No. 1 in the NHL for most of the season in minutes-played until head coach Mike Babcock finally gave him some rest in recent weeks, causing a slide to third with 3,888 minutes 31 seconds over those 66 games.

The rest came as Andersen finally began showing signs of wear after all that playing time. In a stretch of a little more than three weeks between March 3 and March 28, Andersen’s win-loss record was a pedestrian 3-4. He surrendered 17 goals in those losses. The period also included an undisclosed injury, suspected to be a mild concussion, which kept him out of two games.

Suffice to say if Andersen could not regain his form, the Maple Leafs could not count on a long run when the playoffs begin later this week. But after a two-game rest, he bounced back with two strong performances in the Leafs’ last two games of the season.

Andersen stopped 37 of 39 shots in the Leafs’ 2-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils last Thursday and wound up as the first star of the game on Saturday when he made 31 saves against the Canadiens.

“He’s been unbelievable for us. He’s probably been our best player all year,” said Matthews, who finished the season with 34 goals after bagging a power-play marker. “He’s kept us in games, won us games all throughout the year. He’s been our brick wall.”

There were a couple of saves in particular that showed Andersen was back in command of his game. Early in the second period, Andersen nicely anticipated a pass across the slot and slid over to deny a wide-open Brendan Gallagher. Later, he put his pad down at the last second to stop a deflection that dropped from shoulder height to Andersen’s feet.

“Well, he just broke the franchise record, so I think that says it,” Leafs forward Zach Hyman said when asked what Andersen means to the team. “His play has been so consistent and he’s always been someone you can lean on back there. He picks us up when we’re not having a good game. He always gives us a chance to win.

“It’s good having a guy like that back there. Going into the playoffs, we feel confident with both of our goalies. It’s good for Freddie and we’re happy for him. He’s a great guy.”

He’s probably been our best player all year.

Auston Matthews

Andersen, 28, allowed it was nice to set an individual franchise record but he has his eye on bigger things in the playoffs.

“It’s fun when you set goals at the beginning of the year and then you achieve some of them,” the soft-spoken Dane said. “It goes without saying that there are bigger goals. Everyone’s hungry. But I think it’s important to have goals in between that and have something to play for in the regular season. It shows how well we’ve been playing all year.

“I think you’ve got to be on a team that has a chance to win a lot of the games, as well as playing a lot. Those are key factors in that record. I think everyone is proud of it along with the most points [record] too.”

Andersen may be one of the most introverted of the Maple Leafs, at least as far as talking to the media is concerned, but he does have a sly sense of humour. It surfaced when someone asked if he would be watching Sunday night’s game between the Boston Bruins and the Florida Panthers, which would determine if the Leafs meet the Bruins or the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs.

“No, I’m going to watch the Masters,” he said.