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Andersen shakes off rust in AHL with focus on Maple Leafs’ playoff run

TORONTO – The crisp, white Maple Leaf covering Frederik Andersen’s chest protector looked perfectly in place, but the multi-coloured crown stamped over top triggered a double-take.

Same city, same goalie. New league, new uniform.

Seven seasons and 1,071 kilometres removed from his days as a Norfolk Admiral, Andersen returned to the farm Thursday.

A surreal sight, watching the Maple Leafs’ $25-million workhorse leading the Toronto Marlies onto the ice for an empty-building matinee at cozy Coca-Cola Coliseum.

The backbone of the Toronto Maple Leafs for four-and-a-half seasons — the six-foot-four, 230-pound man his teammates affectionately dubbed “Fredzilla” — is embarking on a renewed mission to win back his old job, one save at a time.

Since he last saw game action, way back on March 19, Andersen and the Maple Leafs have been maximizing their time (and their salary cap) in effort to have Andersen in the best possible shape, mentally and physically, for the playoffs.

“I reached a point where I just couldn’t kind of feel confident in the net. And pushing and stopping as hard as I needed to, to be aggressive,” Andersen said. “I think it showed. I mean, it’s really hard to say stop. I think as a player and as a competitor, you don’t want to admit or kind of say stop yourself.”

First, the great Dane spent weeks off the ice to undergo tests and allow his nagging knee injury to heal. Gradually, he was worked back into full team practices.

Andersen enjoyed a jolt of morale by tagging along for the Leafs’ western road swing, and GM Kyle Dubas bought himself a pricy Plan B by renting David Rittich from Calgary at the trade deadline in exchange for a third-round pick.

Thursday’s conditioning stint with the Marlies — a provision available for NHLers making their way back from long-term injured reserve — was, in a word, underwhelming.

Trying to hold down the fort against the Manitoba Moose behind an inexperienced defence corps, Andersen stoned Cole Perfetti point blank early after a D-zone giveaway.

Shortly thereafter, however, Jeff Malott beat him low on a clean breakaway. Ty Pelton-Byce, rushing on a partial breakaway, scored on Manitoba’s next shot.

Both strikes were high-danger chances, executed by minor-league shooters, and Andersen battened the hatches after that.

“I felt rust in the first [period] and early in the game. Just trusting myself, I think, and I got better as we went on with the game,” Andersen said. “Knowing my spots, being calm and quiet with my feet, small things like that got better as we went on.”

To be fair, this was Andersen’s first hockey game in 48 days. He looked fine.

Andersen moved well enough and stretched his legs often between whistles.

“Dip my toes in a bit. Try to get in some game action. I thought that was a good step in my road to coming back to playing. That was the main goal for today,” Andersen said post-game.

“Being familiar with some of the guys is always nice, so that helped. Just getting back into game routine was nice, and the competitiveness. It’s been a while since I played a game last, and I’m just happy to be progressing this well.”

These are baby steps.

“The eye is just really to get Fred back up and running here, and we’ve got to take that one step at a time,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said Thursday morning. “The first step in that process is just to increase his workload. He’s feeling good and was taking on a lot in our practices, which has got him ready for the next step here. We do have a little bit of time remaining and want to make sure we’re smart with it.”

Andersen played just half the game, as planned, allowing two goals on 14 shots (.857 save percentage) before pulling on a Marlies ballcap and ceding his crease to Joseph Woll.

Down 2-1 at the time of the goalie switch, the Marlies lost 5-3 to the Moose.

The club will reassess his injury shortly and determine the next step for Andersen, who theoretically could make up to two more AHL appearances. It’s also possible for him to squeeze in a Leafs start next week.

Andersen says his knee “felt really good, actually,” after 31 minutes of action.

Andersen maintains this rehab mission is about helping the Leafs’ post-season run, not showcasing himself for July’s impending free agency.

“Not really, because I think I know what I’m worth. I know I’m a great goalie,” Andersen, 31, said. “The biggest part is what we’ve got going on here on the team. I think we have really special opportunities here to do something special this year. I think the group we have here is amazing, they’ve done a lot of hard work, and it’s rolling well.

“The biggest motivator for me is just being part of that. I want to contribute to that, and I want to be with the group.”

Whether that is as Toronto’s playoff starter or a backup has yet to be confirmed, although swiping the net from a dialed-in Jack Campbell (15-2-2) felt like a reach on Thursday.

“In terms of the playoffs or anything like that, I don’t have to make that decision here today. I don’t have all the information,” Keefe said.

“I’m not going to make it or make any statement on it other than to say that Fred’s making his way back and Jack Campbell’s been playing extremely well. His confidence is growing and our team’s confidence in him is growing.

“I hope to have to make a difficult decision when the time comes. Because the one thing really, really clear is that the strength and the depth of our goaltending has grown significantly over the last number of months, and I look forward to making tough decisions.”

The onus falls on Andersen to make that decision tougher.

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