TORONTO—Curtis McElhinney didn’t seem used to all the attention.
Surrounded by dozens of reporters at his normally quiet locker stall at the Mastercard Centre for Hockey Excellence in Etobicoke, the 33-year old career backup was asked if Tuesday’s game against the Florida Panthers at home would be the biggest start of his NHL career.
And as such, the Toronto Maple Leafs netminder kept things brief.
“Yeah, I’ll say [Tuesday], sure,” he answered. “But the Jersey game was the same thing. It was a critical game and we were still looking to add points. [Tuesday is] another big one for us.”
You can forgive McElhinney if he’s at all overwhelmed. After all, even when he was claimed off waivers by the Leafs from the Columbus Blue Jackets in January, he didn’t expect to be here. Toronto was clearly Frederik Andersen’s team, a role Andersen had earned with a largely impressive season so far.
But Saturday night changed things, as it so often does in the hockey world. Andersen left after the first period of a 5-2 loss to the Sabres in Buffalo with what’s being called an upper-body injury and McElhinney got the nod for tonight.
For the Leafs, now grinding their way to a playoff spot in the final two weeks of the season, it was never going to be easy. It just couldn’t be. This was the team that has a well-worn history of late-season collapses. And this isn’t to say that Andersen’s injury will lead to a collapse. Far from it: four of Toronto’s final eight games are against teams out of the playoff picture.
But nevertheless, what stands in front of them is the biggest test they’ve faced all season.
“Freddy’s been outstanding for us,” said defenseman Matt Hunwick of Andersen. “Hopefully he’s back soon. As players we can’t play super different depending on who’s in net. We’ve played a certain style all year long and we have to stay to our identity.”
That early season identity, one of a free-wheeling and high-scoring team, has subsided as of late as the team has looked much more able to shut down games rather than blow them wide open.
If they can batten down the hatches and not let the lack of their starting goaltender—one who has arguably been their MVP this season—creep into their minds, they should make it out of the regular season alive and in the playoff picture. Andersen skated with the team at practice Monday and took shots on Tuesday as well. Toronto Marlies goalie Garret Sparks was called up from the AHL on an emergency basis.
“Obviously, at this time of the year, you don’t want to waste too much time getting there so you want to work hard and make sure you get there as quick as possible,” Andersen said of his injury.
There hasn’t been much information getting out about the nature of Andersen’s injury, though some believe it’s his jaw while others have pointed to coach Mike Babcock’s assessment of the injury to mean Andersen suffered a concussion.
Regardless, assuming that Andersen will miss the next few games, it won’t be on McElhinney to keep the Leafs in the playoff hunt. Hunwick’s point about the team sticking to their identity is an important one: the same players that got the Leafs to where they are now, including their impressive rookie trio of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, must play to their capacity regardless of who’s manning the net. McElhinney was brought in to be a backup option and that quality of goaltending is very likely what we’ll see. His three goals allowed on 22 shots through two periods against the Sabres on Saturday might not inspire confidence, but it doesn’t have to: this is not McElhinney’s team. It’s unsure if he’ll even be with the team past this season. Others, such as the aforementioned young rookies, will be and getting into the playoffs so early in their career would do incredible things for their development.
Is it a lot to ask of players so much younger than McElhinney? Perhaps. But they are the ones who have developed this team’s identity and they will be the ones to help see them to the playoffs.