CALGARY – At least the Toronto Maple Leafs were kind enough to show off the most important factor behind their rebuild during a two-game swing through Alberta.
If not for Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer, there is no way they would have headed west to Vancouver with four more points in the standings. The duo combined to stop 84 of 86 shots against Edmonton and Calgary, with Bernier calmly turning aside 41 during Wednesday’s 4-2 victory over the Flames.
Not only do the Leafs lead the Eastern Conference in points after a month, they are also tops in the entire league in frustrated opponents. All the Flames players could do was shake their heads when the horn sounded on their first loss of the season at Scotiabank Saddledome.
For the second straight night the Leafs came up against a team that is trying to work its way out of the abyss and return to the playoffs – something Toronto finally accomplished last season after nine years away.
The path the Leafs have blazed is pretty clear: Find top-notch goaltending. Reimer had the league’s eighth-best save percentage a year ago and general manager Dave Nonis went out and added the highly touted Bernier in a trade over the summer. Through 14 games, those men have combined to post a .938 save percentage.
It has created a healthy internal competition and sent an extra shot of confidence through the dressing room.
When you couple that with some skilled and opportunistic forwards you get a winning formula, at least in the short term. Six different Leafs players have at least five goals already, including Mason Raymond, Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk, who all found the scoresheet against Calgary.
"Depth is a big thing in the NHL," said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. "The teams that have success have depth and I feel that we added that over the summer."
Neither of the architects behind this version of the Leafs was in the building on Wednesday night. Former GM Brian Burke, now the Flames president, was out of town while Nonis didn’t accompany his team on this trip through Western Canada.
They worked together through some lean years in Toronto and could only have dreamed of seeing a team go 10-4-0 to start the regular season as recently as 2011. Burke’s mantra was always to build from the net out and the acquisition of Bernier proved that his successor feels the same way.
Of course, the job for Nonis and his management team is far from complete – particularly as it pertains to the overall defensive play of this group. Toronto has been outshot in 11 straight games, which is basically unheard of for a winning hockey team.
You can’t help but wonder how long the Leafs can maintain their high-wire act. For now, the obvious answer seems to be for as long as Bernier and Reimer can carry them.
"You go into every game knowing that you have a chance to win," said van Riemsdyk. "I think that’s a huge thing."
It really shines through in a situation like this one where the Leafs were facing back-to-back games that started just 23 hours apart. Compounding matters was the way Calgary came roaring out of the gates with six shots in the opening two minutes.
Had a few of those gone in it could have been a long night for the visitors.
Instead, Bernier gave his team the chance to hang around until a goal by Lupul just after a power play expired was followed by van Rimesdyk’s short-handed marker and suddenly Toronto was ahead 2-0 after 20 minutes. As a result, coach Randy Carlyle was able to applaud his group for a successful performance under trying circumstances.
"We weren’t really handed a real nice hand," said Carlyle. "We’re going to thank our players for their hard work and their commitment. We got two points. No matter how you get them, it’s still two points in the standings."
The last thing the veteran coach wants to start doing is critiquing wins and it’s hard to blame him. The NHL is a tough league to grind out victories and the manner in which his team has gone about doing so this season has underscored that theory.
While many in the hockey world understandably question whether the Leafs can keep this up, there is an unmistakeable confidence growing among this group. It’s amazing what getting big saves can do to help change a club’s fortunes.
"We’ve got a young exciting team," said Phaneuf. "We’ve played well early here, we’ve done a lot of real good things the last year and a half. I feel that our team is going in the right direction."
There isn’t a terrible amount of mystery as to why.