When Ducks starter John Gibson went down with a lower-body injury, Jonathan Bernier became the de facto starting goaltender. Before the season began, that may not have been cause for much concern, but given the way Bernier had performed through the early part of the season, slotting him in as Anaheim’s No. 1 was a worrisome prospect.
After nearly a month of Bernier starts, though, it might be time to wonder whether or not the suddenly red hot goaltender can find a way to propel the Ducks to home-ice advantage in the first round of the post-season and potentially even earn them top spot in the Pacific.
Truly, Bernier’s play over the past month has been inspired. In the eight full games he’s played since Gibson went down on Feb. 20, Bernier has managed to piece together a 6-2-0 record, .936 save percentage and an even 2.00 goals-against average. His totals are among the best of goaltenders who have seen at least a half-dozen games over the same span, and during a time when the Ducks very well could have fallen behind in the divisional post-season race with the Calgary Flames streaking and San Jose Sharks putting together a quietly dominant run, the Ducks have been able to keep pace thanks to Bernier.
Few could have seen this coming, however.
When Gibson suffered the lower-body injury, Bernier had started 15 games, and while his 8-4-2 record was sound, his .906 SP and 2.80 GAA left much to be desired. The prevailing belief at the time would have been that if we were discussing Bernier more than three weeks later, it might be to address what the Ducks do without a suitable backup goaltender. Dustin Tokarski had been the only other goaltender the Ducks had used this season, and that was for a grand total of roughly 10 minutes. Suffice to say, it wouldn’t have been misguided to question whether Bernier could shoulder the load.
Before he got set to start his first game in place of Gibson, Bernier had seven outings in which he surrendered three or more goals and you’d be hard-pressed to find a goaltender who was much worse at 5-on-5. Bernier’s SP was an ugly .902 and the only other netminder who had been worse over 500-plus minutes at 5-on-5 was Michal Neuvirth. Not only that, but Bernier had the sixth-worst SP against low-danger chances, had posted the third-worst SP against mid-range shots and only four goaltenders had managed to post a lower SP against high-danger chances.
In the time since, though, those numbers of have greatly improved. There are 34 goaltenders who have played at least 200 minutes at 5-on-5 since Feb. 21, and when it comes to mid-range shots, there are only two who have fared as well as Bernier. In terms of low-danger SP, Bernier’s just outside the top-10, and while his high-danger SP ranks 23rd of the 34 netminders, the overall improvement over this short span has been more than three percent. It’s not as if Bernier is facing an easier workload in Anaheim, either. Matter of fact, he’s probably having a more difficult time in recent games than he’s had all year.
Across nearly 750 minutes at 5-on-5 before Gibson’s injury, Bernier was seeing close to 12 low-danger shots per 60 minutes, 11.1 from mid-danger areas and 4.7 from high-danger spots. In the past eight games, mid- and high-danger shots have increased to 12.4 and 7.3, respectively, while the amount of softballs he’s facing has decreased to 10.1 per 60 minutes. It’s a small sample, but the Ducks haven’t made Bernier’s life easy in the absence of Gibson. Even still, the 28-year-old has stepped up to the plate at a time when Anaheim has needed him.
There’s one more area that Bernier has greatly improved, too, and that’s on special teams. Bernier had been decent at backstopping the Ducks on the penalty kill before Gibson’s injury, landing among the top 20 of the 54 goaltenders who had seen at least 50 minutes shorthanded with a .888 SP. However, in the nearly 53 minutes he’s seen on the kill over the past three-plus weeks, Bernier has turned in a stunning .943 SP. Only Sergei Bobrovsky, Carey Price and Devan Dubnyk have been better.
It’s been crucial for Anaheim that Bernier has performed the way he has, too. That’s especially true after Gibson returned to the Ducks’ crease earlier than some may have expected. After surrendering four goals on 35 shots in a loss to the St. Louis Blues on March 10, Gibson was back on the shelf, though. He’s missed another two games, and, per the Orange County Register’s Eric Stephens, there’s no timeline for Gibson’s return. That means starting duty has again fallen on Bernier, and no one quite knows when that’s about to change.
Make no mistake, when Gibson returns to full-time duty, he’s going to be the No. 1 again, and when the post-season rolls around, it’ll be on the 23-year-old to backstop the Ducks. But Randy Carlyle found himself in a tough situation when Bernier was struggling, knowing full well that switching up his netminder or starting Bernier in place of Gibson wasn’t going to be a spark that ignited his team. But maybe Carlyle has that option now.
It took nearly a full season for him to get here, but it seems Bernier has hit his stride at the perfect time for Anaheim. Now the Ducks hope he can keep it up and help keep them right in the thick of things in the Pacific Division playoff race.
(All advanced statistics via Corsica)
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