TORONTO – Jonathan Bernier hasn’t been anointed the Toronto Maple Leafs’ No. 1 goaltender—yet.
But for the first time this season, coach Randy Carlyle referenced that he has considered it based on Bernier’s strong play of late.
“There are times when you look it and say, ‘Hey, is this the time?'” Carlyle said Saturday morning when asked simply for a thought about Bernier. “Well I’m not ready quite yet to say that he’s this or he’s that.”
Carlyle has over and over called Bernier and James Reimer “1A and 1B.” Even in praising Bernier he made sure not to discount the value of strong tandem goaltending.
“I know we’re going to need both of our goaltenders to play to the top of their ability, and I don’t think we’re any different than any other team in the league,” he said. “I think that if you go through the teams that are having success, they’ll always point to their goaltender who gives them a chance, and that’s really what we’re asking of our guys.”
Bernier will make his season- and career-high fifth straight start Saturday night against the New York Rangers. He has stopped 114 of the 121 shots he has faced during the Leafs’ three-game winning streak leading into the Rangers’ game, and 181 of 190 since relieving Reimer on Dec. 21 against the Detroit Red Wings.
Along the way, he has inspired confidence in his Toronto teammates. Joffrey Lupul pointed specifically to Bernier’s poise and how calm he looked when making rapid-fire short-handed saves during the Winter Classic.
“First of all the fact that he is saving them, but second, the way he stops them just being confident and always in position, it seems to really have a calming influence on our group,” Lupul said.
The NHL handed Lupul a US$10,000 fine for cross-checking Detroit forward Patrick Eaves in the neck last Wednesday. Lupul’s wallet is a bit lighter, but he was happy to learn he wasn’t suspended.
“I’ll admit it was, for sure, not a good play,” he said. “I had my stick up and hit him in the face and hurt him. I knew there was going to be some type of punishment, although it was an accident. I was trying to go in aggressively and hit him, but I certainly didn’t mean to hit him in the neck or the face. But I knew there was going to be some sort of punishment.
“That’s what they decided on, and I’m happy I can play tonight.”
It also allows Carlyle to keep his lineup intact. The Leafs will go with the same lineup on defence that they have for the past four games, which means newly acquired blue-liner Tim Gleason will not play barring a last-minute change.
That’s a testament to the improved play of Paul Ranger since coming back Dec. 23 at New York.
“The one thing with Paul Ranger and a lot of our defencemen is that when you don’t notice them it’s because of the good reasons,” Carlyle said. “The good reasons are they’re playing safe, they’re making good plays, they’re strong plays.”
Enough strong plays to keep Gleason from making his Leafs debut. But part of that is his lack of familiarity after being dealt from the Carolina Hurricanes on New Year’s Day.
That also doesn’t mean he won’t play soon.
“I think it’s another area when you bring a new player in and he gets one practice with your group and then you throw him in a game. I think it’s a little bit unfair to the individual,” Carlyle said. “I think we’d just like to get him acclimated to our style of play, the way we do things, our systems, everything before we put him in the lineup. And he will get a chance.
“We all know at the NHL level there’s a very tough schedule. I think our next stretch of (nine) days we play six games. So we know there’s lots of hockey coming and there’ll be lots of opportunity for people to get in the lineup.”
Right now, though, Carlyle isn’t messing with a good thing.
“We feel a lot better about ourselves in the last little while, and we just need a performance to support that now,” Carlyle said about his team’s recent play. “I think we’re getting back to playing with the puck more. I think at times we’ve been guilty of receiving the game and putting too much pressure on our goaltenders.
“We’ve talked about it, it’s an easy stat to record when you’re getting outshot. But we’re providing enough offence.”
Cam Talbot was to start in goal for the Rangers, who lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2 on Friday night with Henrik Lundqvist allowing five goals on 28 shots.
—Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.