When the final horn sounded at the end of a 2-0 victory against the Calgary Flames on Saturday, the Toronto Maple Leafs emptied the bench to congratulate Jack Campbell on his 31-save shutout performance.
“It’s been a frustrating season, personally with the health,” Toronto’s backup goaltender said. “I felt really confident going in and I prepared really hard all summer and all season this year when I’ve been able to skate.”
Campbell made his return to action after missing three weeks with a lingering leg injury that flared up in his last start, a 30-save shutout in a 4-0 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Feb. 27.
His initial comeback was supposed to spark some good vibes for the Leafs. They went on to sweep the Oilers in a three-game set. They got starting goaltender Frederik Andersen back in the third game of the series after he missed two weeks with a lower-body injury.
But Campbell’s injury would not subside. Despite skating and taking some reps at practices, Campbell’s day-to-day injury turned into weeks and the team slid into a deep funk following their Edmonton trip by losing six of their next seven games against the Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets, Ottawa Senators and Flames.
“I’m really grateful for the medical team here; they’re incredible,” Campbell said. “I feel bad putting them in a tough position with this (but) I guess it’s part of the game.”
Andersen struggled to hold the fort down in his return. After a five-day break in the schedule, he allowed four goals on 18 shots in a 4-3 loss to the Flames on Friday.
Although Campbell wasn’t tested much by the Flames early in the game, he was reliable when called upon. He had poise in the net and limited his rebounds He also displayed incredible acrobatics in the third period by diving across the net for a two-pad stack save on Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk with 3:44 remaining in regulation time
“He’s playing with a ton of confidence and we have a ton of confidence in him,” Leafs forward Zach Hyman said. “He saved every shot so it makes our life a lot easier.”
Hyman and Jason Spezza scored goals for Toronto.
Campbell improved to 4-0-0 this season with a .972 save percentage. The numbers are undeniable to this point that if healthy (and that has to be stressed), he should be getting the next few starts in net.
“When he’s been in he’s been great,” Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “Hopefully, he could stay healthy and be there for us when we need him.”
As far as any goaltending controversy, any decisions going forward appear to be out of Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe’s hands.
He confirmed after the game that Andersen was unavailable to dress as Campbell’s backup on Saturday.
Already pressed right up against the NHL salary cap, the Leafs had to use an emergency recall provision in the collective bargaining agreement to dress goaltender Michael Hutchinson on Saturday
“I wouldn’t say he re-aggregated, I guess it’s just something he’s been dealing with,” Keefe said when asked if Andersen was hurt in his start against the Flames on Friday.
Andersen disclosed earlier in the week that he had not felt 100 per cent healthy. It’s possible he felt the pressure on himself to battle through it. Toronto’s goaltending depth has been both tested and unlucky.
The Leafs signed goaltender Aaron Dell to a one-year, $800,000 deal back in October. They tried to hang onto him by keeping him on the active roster before they eventually lost him to waivers six days before Campbell got hurt against the Flames in his second start of the season.
Campbell’s return allowed the Maple Leafs return to their dominating form. They dominated the Flames in every other advanced metric but this time they had the goaltending to bolster their efforts.
When his teammates greeted Campbell at the end of the game, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews spent an extended amount of time talking to their netminder.
“Basically, they’re proud of my battle through adversity,” Campbell said of the exchange. “It’s been a long road, tough year with the injury, but those guys mean the world to me.”