TORONTO – James Reimer wanted to keep things simple.
It had been a while since he started a game for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and his return came against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the potent Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Maybe there was some circumstances surrounding the game, but honestly I didn’t really pay much attention to them or think about them much,” Reimer said. “It was just the Toronto Maple Leafs playing the Pittsburgh Penguins, and I was trying to get in the way of pucks.”
Reimer got in the way of a lot of pucks Saturday night as he was the backbone of the Leafs’ 4-1 victory over the Penguins at Air Canada Centre. The 26-year-old made 37 saves to give Nazem Kadri the chance to score the game winner, and many of his stops came when the majority of the action was in the Leafs’ zone.
“You don’t win in this league without goaltending that gives you a chance, and Reims gives us a chance,” coach Randy Carlyle said.
Reimer hadn’t started since Oct. 17 when he left 32 seconds into Toronto’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes after a collision with winger Josh Leivo. The long layoff didn’t bother him.
“I felt normal right from the get-go,” Reimer said. “I didn’t feel any uneasiness or uncertainty, really. The puck dropped, and I was ready to stop it.”
Reimer gave up a power-play goal to Kris Letang, the Penguins defenceman’s first of the season, 6:52 in but shut the door from there. One of his more memorable saves came on Malkin a few minutes later, and Dave Bolland went right down the ice and tied it up for the Leafs shorthanded.
But Reimer was really tested in the second period when the Penguins turned up the heat on him and outshot the Leafs 16-4. He made a couple of stops on two-on-one rushes, denied Crosby of a one-timer goal at the side of the net and flashed his glove against Matt D’Agostini to the delight of many of the 19,539 fans in attendance.
“I thought he was outstanding,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. “There was flurries and pucks around his net he was strong on. … He certainly was the difference in the second period.”
Had Reimer cracked even once, the Penguins might’ve been able to ride some momentum and cruise past the Leafs. Instead, Toronto still had hope at the second intermission.
“I think that’s been the story of our season, for the most part,” said James van Riemsdyk, who assisted on Kadri’s goal and Phil Kessel’s later in the third. “There’s been stretches where we get outshot, but our goaltending is making big saves for us. They’ve gave us a chance almost every night. That’s all you can ask for out of your goalies.”
All Reimer and Jonathan Bernier seemingly need is a little goal support. Reimer got it Saturday night in the form of a strong third period led by the new-look first line.
Kadri replaced Tyler Bozak between van Riemsdyk and Kessel, and Carlyle said after the victory that Bozak would miss at least 7-10 days with a lower-body injury. Kadri beat Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury 1:26 into the third after smart passes from van Riemsdyk and Kessel but took more pride in stopping Malkin’s line.
“We’re all on the same page offensively. It was great,” Kadri said. “It’s not just the offensive side of things, we took care of the D-zone. We were able to shut down a few of their key players.”
Bolland, David Clarkson and Mason Raymond also did a good job against Crosby, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz. Malkin finished the night with a minus-3 rating, while Crosby was a minus-2.
As much credit as captain Dion Phaneuf and those forwards got for their defensive play, it eventually came down to Reimer, who didn’t fold under a lot of pressure.
“James played great. Both tenders all season have been unbelievable,” Clarkson said. “It’s always good when you can have that confidence in your goaltending. No matter who goes in net there we have confidence that if we’re getting outshot or outplayed, then we know what we can do.”
Reimer frustrated the Penguins all night and improved to 4-0-2 in his career against Pittsburgh. But he wasn’t crowing about that success.
“They have arguably the best players in the world, and they bring it every time they come and play,” Reimer said. “I’m just lucky enough to have teammates step up and play big games. I don’t know if it has much to do with me more than the guys in front of me working their butts off. Again tonight I thought they worked as hard as they could, and they really earned it.”
Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno
NOTES—A CT scan revealed Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul did not have a fracture in his right foot and he will travel with the team on their Western Canadian road trip, according to Carlyle. The team hopes Lupul, who has missed two games after taking a shot off the foot in practice Thursday, will be able to play Tuesday at the Edmonton Oilers. … Penguins defenceman Rob Scuderi left the game with a lower-body injury late in the first period after taking a hit from Clarkson along the boards. Bylsma did not have an update, saying only that Scuderi would be re-evaluated Sunday.