Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer weathers ups and downs, looks to regain form

TORONTO – James Reimer’s second NHL season has become about regaining what he once had.

It was that motivation which took the Toronto Maple Leafs goalie to Maple Ridge, B.C., over the all-star break rather than a more tropical destination. As most of the league enjoyed a period of well-earned relaxation, Reimer was put through two-a-day workouts by trainer Adam Francilia.

“I went there and worked out and tried to get back a little bit what I lost when I was out,” Reimer said Wednesday before facing the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Interestingly, the 23-year-old started the season in the best shape of his life following a summer of hard work with Francilia. But many of his fitness gains were quickly lost in the wake of a collision with Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta on Oct. 22—a play that sidelined Reimer six weeks with a head or neck injury.

Faced with concussion-like symptoms, a good portion of Reimer’s recovery involved sitting around and resting.

He would eventually return to the Leafs lineup in early December, but didn’t appear to be the same goalie who led the team to a strong second half last season or a 5-1-1 start this year.

Backup Jonas Gustavsson seized the opportunity and seems to have assumed the No. 1 job for now, earning 12 of 13 starts entering Wednesday. However, the extended stretch on the bench hasn’t soured the always-upbeat Reimer, who is intent on getting the top job back.

“I think there’s tough times in any situation,” he said. “Like the good book says, ‘You’ve got to learn to be happy with a lot and happy with a little.’ So you’ve just got to learn to make the most of every situation.

“That’s what I tried to do.”

Heading into a return game against the Penguins, who stormed back for a 5-4 shootout win over Toronto on Tuesday night, he was also trying not to put much pressure on himself.

“I hate losing, I hate letting in goals and I love to win,” said Reimer. “And I just love to play the game. I’m just going to go out there and enjoy the game for what it is.”

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The positive attitude hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates.

A number of Leafs players have recently found themselves in and out of the lineup during a stretch of good health, but you would never have known Reimer was among them based on his demeanour. It’s rare to see him in the dressing room with anything other than a smile.

“I guess you can look at it one of two ways and he’s obviously looking at it is a positive,” said Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn. “(You can) go out there and watch some of the guys and learn. (He’s tried) to work hard and find his game in practice.

“We’ve got all of the confidence in the world in him and we’re excited to have him back in the net.”

The Leafs should also be buoyed by the return of defenceman John-Michael Liles and winger Colby Armstrong after extended injury layoffs. On Wednesday, the team cleared roster space for their return by assigning Nazem Kadri and Keith Aulie to the American Hockey League.

Armstrong has been out since Dec. 17 with a concussion while Liles suffered a similar injury on Dec. 22—although he said earlier this week that he believes the problem stemmed from his neck rather than his head. The defenceman is anxious to get back into action.

“You’re out for this long, it’s tough to really know what 100 per cent feels like sometimes,” said Liles. “But for me I feel really good, feel like I’m good enough to get back in the game and hopefully help out the team. That’s the biggest thing.”

Reimer is hoping to make a similar impact.

Last June, he was celebrating his wedding anniversary with a vacation in Hawaii when the Leafs offered him a US$5.4-million, three-year extension. Now trying to live up to the standard that earned him that contract, there’s no time for those kind of holidays—even during the all-star break.

“No lying on the beach, unfortunately,” said Reimer.