VANCOUVER When Maple Leafs goalie Jack Campbell came back from the all-star break, it was with a spring in his step.
And why wouldn’t he? He was an all-star for the first time in his NHL career, recognized among the elite at his position, deserving of all the accolades that came his way for the first part of the season.
“It just inspires me to be even better the second half,” Campbell said of his experience in Las Vegas. “I just feel refreshed and excited.”
But Campbell’s first game back didn’t go so well. He gave up five goals in a 5-2 loss to Calgary on Thursday in the first game of a three-game road trip. He didn’t look himself. He didn’t look confident. It didn’t help that, on four of the goals, the other players in blue and white essentially abandoned him in some way, in missed assignments and lack of defensive hustle.
Campbell was left one on one with the shooters, and the shooters won.
“Just a couple of lucky bounces that found the back of the net, and then couple of me versus shooter that I’d like to have back,” Campbell said.
Petr Mrázek will be in net Saturday night against the Vancouver Canucks, and there is a hint of a goaltending controversy brewing with Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe saying he wanted to see how things turn out Saturday before committing to either goalie for Monday’s road-trip finale in Seattle.
The Leafs have more invested in Mrázek — $3.8 million (U.S.) in each of the next two seasons — than Campbell, an unrestricted free agent this summer. And they moved to solidify their future in net by signing Joe Woll, who played so well in November in Mrázek’s absence, to a three-year, $2.3-million extension Friday.
“(Woll) impressed with his time here and did a really good job in helping us win games and really show he’s got a future as an NHL goaltender,” Keefe said.
But in the here and now, Keefe needs Campbell and Mrázek to get on rolls if they’re to be taken seriously in the playoffs.
The idea when Mrázek signed in the summer was to go with a tandem in net. It didn’t work out that way in the first half with Campbell playing so well, Mrázek hurt, and games oddly spaced out due to COVID.
But the real battle for the net is about to begin. Campbell is the sentimental favourite, but he’s hit a rough patch. A 17-5-2 start with a .939 save percentage and a 1.87 goals against average got him named to the Atlantic Division all-star team. But since Jan. 5, he’s 5-2-1, .873, 3.86. Since the same date, Mrázek is 4-1-0, .917. 2.20.
Martin Biron, the former goalie who is now an NHL analyst, says a couple of issues have “leaked” into Campbell’s game.
“One of them is obviously physical fatigue,” Biron said. “He plays with such an edge, such an old-school type of style that I think, physically, you’ve got to be at the top of your game to be able to do it.”
Biron noticed Campbell is playing deeper in his net than usual, by about four to six inches.
“For a goalie, it makes a big difference,” he said.
Then there’s mental fatigue. “You might give up a couple of goals, but then you shut them down,” Biron said. “He has that ability in him and now he’s not able to do it. And to me, that’s the mental side that’s getting tired a little bit.”
The solution, of course, is to play Mrázek more. Campbell carried a heavy load in the first half, in part because of Mrázek’s frequent injuries.
“I do think that this is a pretty critical moment in the season for the Leafs,” Biron said. “If you run Campbell even deeper and deeper, you push and push and push, what’s going to be left in April and May? If you have the option to use Mrázek more, that has to be the priority.”
That is what Keefe plans.
“(Mrázek has) been great, both and his performance in the games, his work ethic and practice, his attitude around the group, the way he’s worked in the gym, the way he’s taken care of his body. All those things have just really come together nicely for him,” Keefe said. “All those reasons, it makes it easy to give Jack time off and to give Petr more work.”
Campbell, who has always worn his heart on his sleeve, is learning to stay positive even when things go badly for him.
“It’s just about evaluating my game and learning from a couple of things I didn’t like, but then using the momentum and the things I did like,” Campbell said. “Just a couple of tough bounces, a couple errors I made. But I’ll fix those and be ready to go next time.”
Roster notes: Ondrej Kaše took part in practice Friday despite being pulled from Thursday’s game for precautionary reasons after suffering a first-period hit. “It was a huge hit,” said Kaše. “But I’m doing great, actually.” … Wayne Simmonds missed Friday’s practice but was expected to dress Saturday against the Canucks.
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