Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock seemed a little wary about heaping too much credit upon his goaltender after watching his team give up a season-high 44 shots and still win the game Monday night. Babcock has not been around long, but he appears to have fully bought into the notion that Blue & White Disease is still very alive and well and probably doesn’t want James Reimer coming down with a case of it when he faces the Winnipeg Jets Wednesday night.
But sometimes there are enormous things in the tiniest sound bites and snippets of information. And Babcock let out a doozy when he talked about the goaltending his team received from Jonathan Bernier, to whom we’ll refer as the understudy for the moment, in a loss to Pittsburgh Saturday night.
“I thought we started well against Pittsburgh the other night,” Babcock said, “and then, boom, we give up a goal and suddenly we get deflated way easier than we should.”
The Leafs were so shaky, so fragile and so riddled with a lack of self-esteem going into the game that they simply could not afford more sub-par goaltending, regardless of who was occupying the net. Some teams can get away with just good goaltending. But the Leafs require superhuman goaltending to even be competitive in this league. And when they get the kind of goaltending that had been getting of late, they simply do not stand a chance.
But then in comes Reimer and, against one of the league’s most potent offensive teams, stops 43 shots, including five off the stick of the NHL’s leading goalscorer, Jamie Benn, and eight from Tyler Seguin. There were some who made quite a big deal out of the fact that the Leafs managed to hold the Stars big line of Seguin between Benn and Patrick Sharp to just one goal, but it should be noted that the trio combined for a mind-boggling 18 shots on the evening.
“Obviously, goaltending is a huge part of our sport and it’s no different than pitching or a quarterback,” Babcock said. “It’s huge. They give you confidence.”
The Leafs entered the game as the best possession team in the league and had a 1-7-2 record to show for that. In the game against the Stars, the Leafs got killed on possession, 76-54 in the Corsi department and gave up 19 shots in the second period, but won the game. This was a team that needed an outstanding goaltending performance in the worst way and finally got it.
But Reimer has been here before. There have been so many stops and starts to his career that he’s probably lost count. One of the Maple Leafs problems at the moment is that they appear to have two backup goalies and no No. 1 man. Can Reimer change that? Well, Babcock basically said after the Dallas game that the net is now Reimer’s until he falters. “If you’re him, you want to play every night,” Babcock said. “To me, just play good and you get to start the next game and just make sure you play good again and you get to start after that and you just keep going that way.”
This is the opportunity for Reimer to grab the brass ring, with Bernier a little banged up and relegated to the end of the bench, at least for the time being. But this is also the opportunity Reimer has had countless times before and has been unable to take full advantage of it. He has been brilliant for stretches, but never seems to be able to sustain it.
“Honestly, I feel like I’ve been playing well this season,” said Reimer, who has accounted for both Leaf wins this season. “I’m not getting a couple of bounces and (Monday night) I got a couple of bounces, a couple of posts and a couple that managed to hit me when I was sprawling. It was one of those nights when you worked hard and you got rewarded.”
The job for No. 1 has never been as wide open since Bernier arrived as it is right at this moment. Since coming to Toronto, Bernier has done little to prove he is a day-in, day-out No. 1 goalie in the NHL. And it’s up to Reimer, who is due to become an unrestricted free agent after this season, to prove that he can be the one to fill the vacuum. And he’ll have a chance to prove himself all over again two nights from now.