TORONTO – The call for an unexpected start in goal came just hours before puck drop. The timing couldn’t have been any better for James Reimer.
No member of the Toronto Maple Leafs had expressed more outward frustration following Tuesday’s embarrassing loss to Florida than the fourth-year goaltender, who urged teammates to “look in the mirror” and said that it was “BS” that some might be using injuries or fatigue as an excuse for their poor play.
It was an uncharacteristic outburst from a man who always seems to be smiling. It was also a pretty good window into just how foul the mood in the dressing room had become after Toronto’s record dropped to 7-12-3 since the start of November.
However, Reimer knew that his words wouldn’t be worth much if they weren’t backed up with some action. He took care of that when counterpart Jonathan Bernier was unable to take a scheduled start against the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday night because of an undisclosed ailment.
“When you stand up and say stuff, you want to back it up with an honest solid effort,” said Reimer, who made 34 saves in a 2-1 shootout victory over Phoenix.
Goaltending has been the least of the team’s concerns this season, but that didn’t make the performance any less significant for Reimer. What really pleased him was how solidly the forwards and defencemen played in front of him – particularly during the first 40 minutes.
That put the Leafs in good position to walk away with two badly needed points and they ended up finding a way to pull it off.
“They put in an honest effort … I thought we played solid,” said Reimer.
“We all make mistakes,” he added. “We sometimes don’t show up in a way we want to. I think you’re judged on how you respond and I thought we did a great job tonight. We really came collectively and everyone bought in. It was a really good thing to see.”
It is scary to think where this team might be without the spectacular play of its goaltenders this season. Both Reimer and Bernier remain inside the NHL’s top-10 in save percentage despite facing a league-high 35.8 shots per game.
Even against the Coyotes, there were moments where this one could have slipped away. But Reimer stood tall in the third period by coming out to deny a dangerous Derek Morris chance before later picking up a shot through traffic off the stick of Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Martin Hanzal eventually broke his shutout bid on a wraparound with less than five minutes to play in regulation, but Reimer rebounded and stopped two of three attempts in the shootout to boost his record to 3-0 in the tiebreaker this season.
It was no surprise to then see Reimer called out for a twirl as the first star at Air Canada Centre.
“He did a really good job of fighting through some screens and battling in there,” said winger Joffrey Lupul. “That’s the one thing we know we can count on Reims for – his compete level and battle. Sometimes pucks bounce off him and things like that, but he’s a very, very competitive guy.
“We draw off of that when he’s making big saves like that.”
It will be interesting to see if Reimer gets the call again on Saturday when the Detroit Red Wings come to town for a big Atlantic Division matchup. Carlyle’s pattern has usually been to run with a winning goaltender, but Reimer only earned Thursday’s start after Bernier was unable to go.
His ailment isn’t considered serious and he was able to serve as Reimer’s backup versus Phoenix. It is believed that Bernier got banged up during Monday’s game in Pittsburgh – possibly when he came way out of his net to play the puck and collided with Penguins forward Jayson Megna.
After picking up a victory that helped lift the mood in the Leafs dressing room, Reimer didn’t back down from the strong comments he made earlier this week.
“Obviously I was frustrated, but I try and always answer (with) the way I’m feeling – in an honest way,” he explained. “Whether I’m frustrated or whether I’m happy, I try and answer objectively. I just answered how I thought I saw it.”
Toronto is far from out of the woods, but it still has a chance to pull alongside Detroit into the Eastern Conference’s first wild card spot with a win on Saturday. Given how badly things have gone for the past six weeks, that isn’t too bad.
On a night when the Leafs needed something good to happen so that they could start looking on the bright side of things, Reimer stepped up and delivered it.
“Individuals, when you’re in situations which we’ve been in for the last little while, you’re always looking for somebody to step up for you,” said Carlyle. “Obviously, our goaltending has been one of our strongest suits. Both guys have really given us ‘A’ level quality goaltending all year.
“Tonight was just another example of James Reimer stepping up – and we’re very, very fortunate to have him.”