TORONTO – James Reimer thinks about a lot of things.
The Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender had a premonition and told his wife he’d play in Thursday night’s game against the Boston Bruins. And he did, replacing the injured Jonathan Bernier.
Before that, Reimer considered the possibility that he had played his final game with the Leafs after being in goal for five straight losses before Bernier’s return from a groin problem.
Now that Bernier is lost for the rest of the regular season—a minimum of three weeks—with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, Reimer doesn’t have to think about riding out the rest of his time in Toronto on the bench.
His new challenge is trying to rebound from one of the worst stretches in his career lead the Leafs to the playoffs.
“I’ve had a lot of success in the past and had to carry the load in different scenarios, and I’ve been successful in that,” Reimer said Friday. “You’re a competitor and you love the challenges, especially maybe sometimes when the odds are against you. You just go out there and play your heart out and kind of hope that it’s going to be enough.”
Even with his best efforts, it might not be enough.
With four games left, Reimer and the Leafs have 84 points, one back of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who lost to the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night. Columbus has one extra game left, meaning Toronto likely has to win out and hope to get some help, too.
The first task at hand comes Saturday night at Air Canada Centre against the Winnipeg Jets. That’s all Reimer, a native of Morweena, Man., is worried about.
“The main thing is it’s not four games in a row,” Reimer said. “As a goalie, you can’t see it like that. You can’t even win 60 minutes. It’s about the first five minutes, the first minute, the first shot.”
Reimer did give up a goal on the first shot he faced Jan. 20 against Tampa Bay, and one within the game’s first six minutes twice more during a run of five straight regulation losses.
The 26-year-old, who allowed 18 goals on 139 shots in that time, was made a scapegoat for the Leafs’ struggles. That did not sit well with centre Nazem Kadri.
“It seems like when the team does not do well, he’s the first guy that everyone hops all over, which really that shouldn’t be the case,” Kadri said Thursday night. “At that point when we were losing, the team in front of him just couldn’t bring it together and just couldn’t figure things out, and obviously the goalie’s left out there to dry by himself. We felt bad, and now it’s about time we have his back and step up to the plate.”
It’ll take more than just Reimer to roll off four more wins, against the Jets in the home finale and then at the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators. But he’s undoubtedly at the forefront now and said he’ll try to do his part.
Reimer pointed to Thursday night’s 4-3 overtime victory against the Eastern Conference-leading Bruins as evidence of his belief in why the Leafs can do the improbable and make the playoffs.
“Maybe sometimes it’s not the prettiest, but we find ways to win,” he said. “We pull together and we lean on each other and that’s what it takes. With four games to go, no one’s going to ask how we get points, just as long as we get them. I believe fully in this team that we’ve got what it takes.”
If Reimer can recapture past form that made him the Leafs’ starter—and a good one at that—he’d have a chance to redeem himself and his team for last month’s losing. He’d also likely make a good case to another NHL team that he’s capable of being a No. 1 goaltender somewhere.
Saturday, against a Winnipeg team that has had its share of troubles in goal, could be the start of that audition. Reimer can’t help but think about the future and what it holds for his career, but that’s not at the forefront of his mind.
“Honestly right now there’s lots of thoughts swirling in your head about a lot of things,” he said. “But now it’s just time to stop the puck. It doesn’t really matter what transpires after the season or all that white noise, per se. All I’m trying to do is just play my best and get those two points tomorrow and then go on to Florida. I try not to think about all this other stuff.”
From a team perspective, Bernier’s injury—which happened in the third period when defenceman Paul Ranger pushed Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron into the goalie—just adds to the adversity.
“All the time in the NHL you’re always provided with challenges through the course of the season, and this is just another one,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “Our group has to continue to play to a higher level than we did in the last one. That’s what we’re going to ask of ourselves.”
In the process, the Leafs are asking Reimer to be stable and dependable. Beyond that, he doesn’t want to put excess pressure on himself with the season on the line.
“Obviously it’s a big game and some people might say it’s a must-win game and stuff, but when you start putting too much pressure on yourself, you can’t perform,” Reimer said. “It’s a big game and we know what’s at stake, but you can’t really think about that. You’re just thinking about your own game and what you need to do to be successful.”
NOTES—Joffrey Lupul is day-to-day with a lower-body injury, according to Carlyle, who said Thursday night the winger was doubtful to play against Winnipeg. … Forwards Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Dave Bolland did not practise Friday because they were given so-called “maintenance” days off.
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