The debate is over, if not moot.
With goaltender Frederik Andersen missing in action due to a lower-body injury and no clear timetable to return, Jack Campbell has stepped in and continued to help the Toronto Maple Leafs pile up victories.
On Friday, Campbell made 31 saves as his team defeated the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 in a shootout and improved to 8-0-0 this season with a .951 save percentage.
With the game tied 1-1 in the third period, Campbell made several game-saving stops as the Jets pressured for the go-ahead goal.
The first difficult save came on a 3-on-2 after Mitch Marner turned the puck over in his own zone. The Jets collapsed toward the net before getting the puck to Pierre-Luc Dubois on the right side. But Campbell slid across to make a pad save.
A couple of minutes later, Campbell made a couple of saves. The latter, a rebound as he robbed Andrew Copp
The barrage of hell from the Jets concluded moments later when Kyle Connor attempted another shot from the glove side of Campbell. The goaltender came across for the save.
There was some concern as he appeared to favor the same leg that kept him out of the lineup for multiple stretches this season. And that concern is warranted as the team continues to manage the goaltender’s health. Campbell finished the game, although it’s something to keep an eye on.
But it’s clear his teammates are thrilled to be playing in front of a goaltender who has, at times, snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat.
“Hockey is about confidence and I think he gives us confidence right now,” Jason Spezza said. “We’re trying to give him confidence by keeping things to the outside and (he’s) just a guy that’s really benefitting getting a little momentum here.”
Spezza scored the only goal in the shootout, Toronto’s first of the season.
Unlike the team’s first game in the two-game set, the Leafs got off to a slow start against the Jets, who had 17 scoring chances in the opening period compared to seven from Toronto.
“They had a lot of opportunities, if it wasn’t for Soup, we’d be down early in the game,” Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “Both goalies had some big saves and they kept everyone in it here.”
Leafs defenseman Travis Dermott eventually opened the scoring at 5:16 of the second period. His shot from the point went through a sea of humanity before the puck sailed past Connor Hellebuyck.
Winnipeg’s lone goal came off a 2-on-1 that Copp cashed in on at 11:50.
From there, both goaltenders dueled and it’s in these games where Campbell’s game went to a different level.
In two consecutive games against the defending Vezina Trophy winner, Campbell outperformed Hellebuyck.
There is no better measuring stick than that.
“When he has that steadiness and that calmness, he just calms everyone down,” Marner said of Campbell. “I think we relied on him a bit too much, but I mean, he was unbelievable in both these games and that’s a big reason why we won both.”
Of course, it wasn’t always this way for Campbell.
The 11th overall pick from the 2010 NHL Draft took a long road to get here. During his time with the Dallas Stars organization, he struggled with confidence issues. In 2015, Campbell and Hellebucyk were teammates when they both represented Team USA at the IIHF World Hockey Championships in the Czech Republic.
“When I was struggling early in my career, he was always right there texting me and kind of coached me a little bit,” Campbell said of Hellebuyck. “He’s always been there so I appreciate his friendship so much.”
Hellebucyk was equally thrilled for his Campbell, even though it came at his expense. His comments also reflected how different this season is.
After games, you’d often see players from opposing teams mingling before boarding the team bus or going home. With COVID-19 protocols in full effect, many of the human interactions have been taken away.
You know, I wish I could say hi to him after the game or talk to him more after the game because he’s such a great guy on and off the ice,” Hellebuyck said of Campbell. “I think a good rivalry is happening and I’m excited to see the success he’s having.”
Campbell’s eight straight victories put him one back of tying the Leafs’ record of nine held by Felix Potvin, Jacques Plante and John Ross Roach.
As long as the injury issues can be managed (and that’s still a big if), Campbell is the guy.
There’s no debate. He’s the team’s starting goaltender until his performance dictates otherwise.
“You can just see his confidence growing and you can see the team’s confidence in him growing as well,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He was playing in a game tonight with virtually no room for error and he was there on all the breakdowns we had today, which I thought we had too many.”