TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs slipped away to St. Louis without leaving any hints as to who would get the next start in goal.
Ben Scrivens and Jonas Gustavsson each spent time working with goalie coach Francois Allaire during Wednesday’s practice and coach Ron Wilson didn’t address the media afterwards. Both goalies said they hadn’t been told who would get the call for Thursday’s game against the Blues.
Toronto’s goaltending was back under the microscope after the team was outscored by a combined margin of 12-1 over consecutive games on home ice—Scrivens was pulled during a 7-0 loss to Boston on Saturday while Gustavsson was yanked midway through a 5-1 loss to Florida on Tuesday.
In the wake of those defeats, the Leafs were looking to do a better job in front of their goaltenders.
“We’re not perfect as defencemen, our forwards aren’t perfect and our goalies aren’t perfect,” said captain Dion Phaneuf. “Mistakes are made in games and (the goalies) are no different than us. But when the pucks aren’t bouncing for them we’ve got to tighten up in front of them.
“It’s like if a D-man makes a mistake, you hope a forward’s there to help you out or your partner.”
Goaltending has long been an issue in Toronto, with nine different men having spent time in the crease since Wilson was hired as coach before the 2008-09 season. The position seemed to be solidified with James Reimer entering the year as the No. 1 man, but he’s been out with concussion-like symptoms since getting bumped by Habs captain Brian Gionta on Oct. 22.
Reimer was originally supposed to return for a game in New York on Oct. 27 but suffered a setback. He hasn’t spoken to the media since and Wilson said after Tuesday’s game that there remains no timeframe for a comeback.
“I really don’t know (when he’ll be back),” he said. “I can’t comment on that because I simply don’t know.”
With a move to acquire a player unlikely to happen in the short term, that leaves them with the tandem of Gustavsson and Scrivens.
Gustavsson is in his third year with the Leafs and has been unable to live up to the hype that accompanied his arrival as a free agent in 2009. In 74 career appearances, he has a 26-32-11 record, .896 save percentage and 3.78 goals-against average. His numbers so far this season are even worse than that.
“You just have to keep going,” said Gustavsson, who allowed three soft goals to Florida. “You’re going to make mistakes during the season. Everyone’s going to do that. But the key is to keep going. Try to make less mistakes.
“Try to work hard in practice and that way in the end you’re going to make less mistakes and stop more pucks.”
In many ways, the current situation offers a major opportunity for Scrivens. The 25-year-old was fifth on the organizational depth chart after signing as an undrafted free agent last season and now has a chance to prove he belongs in the NHL.
Scrivens had an excellent debut with 38 saves in a win over Columbus last week before struggling against the Bruins and Panthers.
“It’s a learning experience for me,” he said. “All this stuff is brand new to me. I’m just trying to get better every day and take lessons out of stuff that’s happened.”
The Leafs are actually off to a decent start at 9-5-1, but they’re in danger of falling into a familiar pattern of extended losing runs. After getting blown out twice, there was an unmistakable feeling of turmoil.
Wednesday’s practice got underway 25 minutes later than expected while the team held a meeting.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to hit the panic button to be completely honest with you,” said Phaneuf. “I think what happens in our room stays in our room. We did have a meeting, but there’s no negatives and we’re not getting down on ourselves and the group that we have.
“We’re confident, we’re upbeat and it’s just a bump in the road for us.”
Added defenceman John-Michael Liles: “It was just a good talk.”
In St. Louis, they’ll be facing a desperate team. Ken Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne as coach over the weekend and the Blues beat Chicago 3-0 in his debut on Tuesday night.
The Leafs know they need to get back on track quickly.
“We’re trying to build something here, we’re trying to grow together as a group,” said Phaneuf. “You’re going to go through times like this. It’s how you come out of them and it’s how you respond to the adversity that’s before us.”