TORONTO — Mike Babcock has made a habit during recent media availabilities of trying to head off questions concerning the Maple Leafs' goalie situation before reporters even get a chance to ask.
While that was the case again Sunday — Toronto's head coach said he doesn't know the identity of his starter for Monday's visit from the Colorado Avalanche — roll call at practice and Frederik Andersen's answers suggest the club is on the verge of getting its No. 1 netminder back in the crease.
Out since Dec. 28 with a groin injury before getting cut down by a flu bug that forced him to miss Saturday's 3-2 home loss to the Boston Bruins, Andersen was on the ice with teammates and declared himself fit if called upon.
"I definitely feel ready to go," he said. "But we'll see."
Despite sitting out Toronto's last seven games — including two outings where he dressed as the backup immediately before and after the Christmas break — Andersen still sits third in the NHL in wins (20), while his .923 save percentage and 2.50 goals-against average puts him first and fifth, respectively, among goalies with at least 25 appearances.
He said it's been "extremely hard" to be patient as he's worked to get back in the lineup.
"Especially with the extra flu going around, that was very frustrating," Andersen said. "It's been a process that's been new for me."
Leafs backup Garret Sparks (concussion) was also at practice and said he's cleared medically to play.
That relegated Michael Hutchinson, who is 2-3-0 with a .914 save percentage and a 2.64 GAA in five emergency starts following a trade with the Florida Panthers in late December, to a workout with assistant coaches following Sunday's main session.
"I'd be good to have everybody back, but that's all part of life," Babcock said of Andersen and Sparks. "We've got to find a way to play better and win games no matter who's in net."
The Leafs did plenty of good things in the loss to the Bruins — a fourth defeat in their last six — but were undone by two gaffes from the No. 2 defence pair of Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev late in the second period that flipped a 2-1 advantage to a 3-2 deficit.
"We played really well," Toronto centre Auston Matthews said. "But you make a couple costly mistakes and it ends up in the back of your net."
Matthews, who has just one goal in nine games, had a great opportunity to tie things with four minutes left against Boston only to see the puck roll off his stick at the critical moment.
He's not the only Toronto forward currently in a funk. William Nylander has one goal in 16 games since his contract impasse ended at the beginning of last month, while Nazem Kadri has scored once in his last 17.
"It's just the way it's been going as of late," Matthews, who had a goal called back for offside against the Nashville Predators last Monday, said of his own struggles. "These last few games, especially our line (with Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson), we've done a lot good things.
"It's only a matter of time for the puck to start going in."
Now just two points up on Boston for second in the Atlantic Division, Toronto (28-14-2) will look over and see a desperate opponent Monday.
The reeling Avalanche, who were tied for first in the Western Conference just over a month ago, have lost nine of their last 10 games (1-7-2), and since a 5-2 victory over Florida on Dec. 6 are just 3-10-3 — the worst record in the NHL over that span.
Colorado (20-17-8) currently occupies the conference's first wild-card spot, but is also only three points up on the 10th-place Edmonton Oilers.
The all-star top line of Mikko Rantanen (second in league scoring with 68 points), Nathan MacKinnon (fifth, 66 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (18th, 51 points) has continued to put up big numbers, but the wins haven't followed.
"We're trying to stay positive, but at the same time everybody knows that we need to be better," Avalanche centre Tyson Jost said after Sunday's optional skate at Toronto's practice facility. "We've been playing some good hockey (recently). We just need to clean up one or two things and we're right there.
"There's a sense of urgency, and so there should be."
And Babcock will be looking for the same level of intensity from his team, which has lost three of its last four at home and is just 13-9-1 at Scotiabank Arena, no matter who he taps on the shoulder to start in goal.
"In the league, every day, I think you're all pretty desperate," he said. "You know you need the points. You need that feeling — that feeling where you're floating instead of grinding.
"You've got to earn it."
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