TORONTO – James Reimer didn’t make it look easy, but he made it tough for Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle to keep him out of the net.
In making 36 saves to beat the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night, Reimer very well may have reignited the goaltending competition against Jonathan Bernier. It was his first start after three-plus games of strong play from Bernier, but there’s a good chance he earned another game with his performance.
“You want to make the decision tough. Well, in essence, actually you want to make it easy,” Reimer said. “More importantly than all of that is you want to compete for your teammates, you want to compete for yourself. Every day you come out and you want to work hard. That’s how you can put your head on the pillow at night and sleep easy is knowing that you worked your butt off.”
Reimer has worked his butt off in the 10 days since he was pulled in favour of Bernier after allowing four goals on 21 shots against the Ottawa Senators. Bernier pitched a shutout the rest of that game and didn’t falter until allowing five past him Saturday in a comeback victory over the Edmonton Oilers.
Carlyle said Reimer was getting the start against Minnesota to keep him from getting stale. That’s a testament to Bernier’s play, and perhaps a hint of how the coach sees his goalies’ roles.
But Carlyle has been careful not to name a No. 1, so the Leafs don’t have to worry about this being any kind of controversy. Seven games into the season, they’re off to their best start in 20 years and have the goalies, at least in part, to thank.
“We know both our goalies are great goaltenders,” centre Tyler Bozak said. “James has been doing it here for a long time, given us a chance to win every time he plays and obviously Bernie this year has been doing the same thing. Whichever one of them’s in net, we’re pretty confident that they’re going to do a great job.”
It’s possible that Reimer and Bernier yo-yo back and forth all season with one of them looking like the dominant force until the other gets another opportunity. And as these things go, there will probably be a time when both are struggling.
That’s not now, though. Bernier’s .946 save percentage has him ranked ninth in the NHL, while Reimer’s .916 has him 24th. Toronto has a 2.29 goals-against average as a team, which is good for fifth.
Reimer has started three games to Bernier’s four, but Reimer said the motivation isn’t beating one another.
“It’s not necessarily the competition,” he said. “We’re battling it out here, but we’re all about wins.”
By that measure, the Leafs can’t be anything but ecstatic. They’re 6-1-0, and the one loss was in a one-goal game against the undefeated Colorado Avalanche.
There’s some consternation about the need to play better all around, and the goaltending situation is sure to provide plenty of conversation even as things are going well. Reimer is just blocking it out.
“I’m sure stories were being written and things were being said, but honestly, I’ve said it a bunch, I wasn’t listening to anything,” he said after beating the Wild. “I just come to the rink and try and work hard and when I get in there try and work my hardest and give the boys a chance. If that’s what the story’s going to be, that there’s still a competition, then that’s what it’s going to be. But for me it’s just trying to battle out there and give the boys a chance.”
That’s Reimer’s job in Carlyle’s eyes. The 25-year-old gave up a lot of rebounds against Minnesota and conceded there were some technical elements to his game that could have been better.
But Carlyle praised Reimer specifically for saves he made on the penalty kill, where the Leafs are quietly humming along at an 88.9-per-cent success rate, third in the league.
“He was making the big saves: the first save and the second and more,” winger Mason Raymond said. “That’s all you can ask from a goaltender. He gave us the opportunity to win. That’s the bottom line.”