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Frederik Andersen looks refreshed, even in Leafs’ loss to Blues

Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen eyes in a glove save against the Blues on Feb. 9, 2017.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Okay, Toronto Maple Leafs fans, you can exhale – even if your team lost 2-1 in overtime to the St. Louis Blues.

The latest thing to wind the knickers of Leafs Nation into a knot was the play of goaltender Frederik Andersen. After an unworldly November and December, Andersen was much more ordinary in January and even worse recently.

Fatigue was fingered as the culprit, and it was hoped the acquisition of veteran backup Curtis McElhinney would help. Well, McElhinney gave Andersen another night off on Tuesday while backing the Leafs to a win over the Dallas Stars.

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Andersen came back Thursday night looking far more refreshed than he has in most games of late. The Leafs may have wound up losing thanks to Blues winger Vladimir Tarasenko, who ended a quiet night by skating around a couple of Leafs and firing a rocket in the first 20 seconds of overtime, but Toronto would not have gotten that far without Andersen, who finished with 38 saves.

"He made a lot of key saves all night," said Leafs winger Mitch Marner, who missed a glorious chance to put the Leafs ahead in the third period. "He's the backbone of our team."

The Leafs made it to the third period with the score tied 1-1 thanks mostly to Andersen. He was the freshest-looking Leaf over the first 40 minutes as the Blues dominated play, especially in the first period. By the end of the second, the Blues held a 31-18 advantage in shots on goal.

That was not bad, considering it was the Blues' third road game in four nights. Also, they lost their top centre early in the second period when Paul Stastny got tangled with Leafs centre Nazem Kadri and fell into the boards.

Thursday's game was Andersen's 44th appearance of the season. Since this is his first season as a true No. 1 goaltender and he played in 43 games last season for the Anaheim Ducks, there has been much discussion about fatigue as Andersen's play tailed off in January.

Leafs head coach Mike Babcock was rather pointed in his remarks about Andersen after the game-day skate on Thursday.

"Well, it hasn't been good enough," Babcock said about Andersen's recent work. "But there's times in the year when you have little dips and you've got to make sure you work hard every single day and those dips are shorter and they don't happen as often.

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"That's the challenge for him. He's in a situation – I think he played around [43] games last year in the regular season – we want him to play a lot more. So the challenge for him is being able to handle that. Our team was no good [in last week's 5-1 loss] against St. Louis. We weren't competitive, so this should be a better opportunity for [Andersen] since our team will play better. He's got to do his part."

Andersen did his part and more, especially in the first period when the Blues dominated. They outshot the Leafs 17-4, and only Andersen kept the score 1-0 for the visitors on a goal at 4:15 by Patrik Berglund.

The save of the night came as the first period was winding down. Andersen lost his stick in a scramble around the goal, and the puck went to the high slot with the goaltender down on the ice. But Andersen sat up, tracked the shot and made a nifty glove save.

He was rewarded by the hockey gods midway through the third period when Blues defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, who was robbed in close by Andersen in the second, had a breakaway. Andersen kept his cool and stayed still, waiting for Pietrangelo to make the first move until he shot the puck over the net.

Babcock was considerably more impressed with his goaltender after the game but measured in his praise.

"Yeah, I thought he was good for sure," the coach said. "We made better plays around him. If you play right, your goalie looks better."

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The Leafs were better in the second period but they, too, had to deal with a hot goaltender.

While much has been made of the Blues' 3-1 record since Ken Hitchcock was fired as head coach and replaced by Mike Yeo, which started with a 5-1 win over the Leafs on Feb. 2, the biggest difference for them has been goalie Jake Allen.

It was Allen's struggles that led to Hitchcock's firing as much as anything. While the rest of the Blues were not playing as bad as their record, Allen's play in goal fell off a cliff compared to last season. Just before Hitchcock was fired, Allen was kept home on a Blues road trip in the hopes he could somehow gather his game.

Whether it was the mental break or Hitchcock's firing is not known, but since the coaching change Allen, 26, is playing more like he did last season. He went into the Leafs game with a 2-1 record, a 1.34 goals-against average and a save percentage of .954 in his last three starts.

When the Leafs finally came on late in the second period, it was Allen who frustrated them. The Leafs were all over the Blues in the last four minutes and they did manage to tie the score on a goal by defenceman Morgan Rielly.

The Leafs were even better in the third period, but so was Allen. He, too, was rewarded by the hockey gods on the best scoring chance the Leafs had, midway through the period. Leafs winger Mitch Marner made a fabulous deke on Allen to get an open net, but the puck hopped over his stick and skittered out of danger.

"I looked up and saw the net," Marner said. "I went to shoot and the puck was nowhere to be found. It was pretty crappy luck."

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