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STEVE SIMMONS: To succeed, Maple Leafs need Andersen to be great

Tampa’s Steven Stamkos looks to tip a high puck at Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen last night. Andersen gave up seven goals before his was pulled.  Claus Andersen/Getty Images
Tampa’s Steven Stamkos looks to tip a high puck at Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen last night. Andersen gave up seven goals before his was pulled.  Claus Andersen/Getty Images

So much talk about the Maple Leafs backup goalie. Not nearly enough talk about the starter.

Frederik Andersen was in net for his 216th game for the Maple Leafs Thursday night at the Scotiabank Arena. For only the second time, he allowed seven goals against. The first time, against Tampa Bay in October of 2016, he finished the game.

On Thursday, he played just 46:57 before getting the merciful hook from coach Mike Babcock. Andersen wasn’t particularly sharp but he wasn’t alone. Babcock and his staff didn’t have a good night either. The Leaf players, for the most part, were outplayed and outworked by the Lightning. The much-discussed fourth line played like a fifth line. And the great finesse and skill from the Tampa lineup mostly obliterated the finesse and skill of the Leafs.

“I thought it was going to be a hell of a game,” said Babcock. “I don’t think it was.”

This new season is only four games old for Andersen, five games old for the Leafs, and already there is some reason for concern. Babcock wants six points every five games. That’s his built-in mantra. That gets you to 96 plus points on the season. That gets you to the playoffs.

Losing to the Lightning — losing three home games in a row, one in a scrambly overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens, one in a well-played defeat against the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, and last night a non-competitive, sloppy game for the Leafs, this 7-3 result that saw Andersen chased from the goal with over 13 minutes still to play.

This was the second straight so-so game from Andersen, who started the season with wins against Ottawa and Columbus. The Leafs could have beaten the Blues on Monday night had Andersen been on top of his game. He wasn’t on Monday, he wasn’t on Thursday, but against the Lightning it was a collective collapse — the weakest loss of the early season.

And here’s the thing with this Leafs team. They can’t get by with average goaltending. They may not be able to get by with good goaltending. They need great — top of the league — goaltending.

Andersen has been capable of that kind of play before. He needs to show he can do that again. The Leafs don’t have a lot of margin for error in the way in which they have chosen to play. And when Andersen’s off, or just not his sharpest, they get kicked the way they happened to get kicked against the previously struggling Tampa Bay team.

This was supposed to be one of those early season tests. Two of the young, quality offensive teams in hockey — good enough to score at will in the regular season, not yet good enough to win many playoff rounds.

The test was set up, the participants knowing well what was on the line, even this early in the schedule. But Tampa spent the night padding stats and smiling and the Leafs looked a step slow, a touch less competitive, a lot less determined: All of that added up defeat.

“Any time you lose, it’s a concern,” said Babcock. “You’re in a points business. You’ve got to get points.”

For some reason, Babcock never chose to match Auston Matthews line against the dominating line of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, which could well be the most skilled line in all of hockey. That seemed to cost the Leafs. For some reason, Mitch Marner, not a centre, took a defensive zone faceoff while killing a penalty. For some reason, some of the best Toronto players, Andersen, Morgan Rielly, Tyson Barrie, Marner, William Nylander, were nowhere to be found most of the night. When Justin Holl is one of the Leafs best players, which he was, well, that tells you all you need to know.

“They looked quicker, better, more organized, more skilled,” Babcock said. “We didn’t give ourself a chance.

“They were fast, they were on the puck, they won 50-50 battles all over the rink. In the end, it wasn’t good enough for us.”

In the end, it was terribly disappointing. “I wasn’t up to speed,” Andersen said. “You make mistakes, you have to pay for it.”

He meant himself and he meant the team, but Andersen understands his place. He knows what’s expected of him. He expects it too. This isn’t an easy team to play goal behind. He’s come to understand what happens when he’s not great.

He saw the results on the scoreboard Thursday night as he was being pulled, partly for how he played, partly to give him some much needed rest.

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