WASHINGTON – First, a little story about Jonathan Bernier: When the goaltender received an email from Hockey Canada earlier this week informing him that he wouldn’t be part of the Olympic team – something that was sent to everyone included on the federation’s long list of potential players – it stung a bit.
“You hope,” said Bernier. “I was a little disappointed.”
The man doesn’t lack confidence. In fact, Bernier’s level of self-belief is refreshing on a Toronto Maple Leafs team that hasn’t exactly been bubbling over with that sort of thing the last little while.
However, it also flies in the face of some pretty staggering statistics that have accompanied the team’s decline over the last seven weeks. While goaltending unquestionably remains the Leafs biggest strength, Bernier and James Reimer have combined for just a .900 save percentage over the last 23 games dating back to a 6-0 loss to Columbus in late November (Reimer, it should be noted, has brought the number down far more than his counterpart).
In 18 of those games, Toronto has surrendered at least three goals against – a trend that surfaced again in Friday’s 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals.
The team is simply giving up too many quality scoring chances to be successful because good goaltending can only take you so far. And even though the Leafs put in a much better effort at the Verizon Center than they managed in the three losses that came before this one, it was yet another night with 30-plus shots against.
Bernier was on top of his game, making several high-quality stops from close range, but got bitten by some bad luck in the third period. First Nicklas Backstrom tied the score with a shot that banked in off Jay McClement’s skate before Joel Ward slipped the game-winner through his pads thanks to a deflection off Dion Phaneuf’s foot.
This is part of the challenge when you’re playing on a team that is surrendering more shots against than any other in the NHL. Even on nights when you play well – very well – you’re bound to surrender some unfortunate ones along the way.
However, if Bernier is starting to feel the weight of the challenge before him, he’s not showing any signs of it. The 25-year-old was even slightly more chipper than his disappointed teammates after they lost a fourth straight game in regulation for the first time all season. Now essentially serving as a No. 1 goaltender for the first time in his NHL career, he’s encouraged by how things have gone for him personally so far.
“I definitely feel a lot more confident in there,” said Bernier. “Now it’s getting my routine and establishing my routine every day and every night. I knew coming into this season that my challenge would be consistency. Not playing a lot (in Los Angeles) the last three years, I know mentally it’s tough for a goalie to be sharp every night.
“It’s going to get better.”
The Leafs left Washington feeling the same way about their own fortunes. After being outscored 18-5 over the previous three games, including a 6-1 drubbing in Carolina on Thursday night, they needed to deliver a more inspired performance against the Caps.
There was no question that they managed it during a chippy game where the Toronto players demonstrated an increased willingness to battle for the puck. The forecheck, in particular, was far more noticeable and created quite a few scoring opportunities. The only reason there were some long faces afterwards is that they weren’t able to nurse home the 2-1 lead Phil Kessel gave them just 54 seconds into the third period.
However, that didn’t completely overshadow the improvements.
“I think if we play like we did (tonight) against every single team we’ll be fine,” said forward David Clarkson, who was rejoining the play from the penalty box when Washington got the winning goal.
Added teammate James van Riemsdyk: “It’s a step in the right direction.”
Even coach Randy Carlyle, who has recently come under fire and started publicly challenging his players to raise their game, saw some reason for optimism. Finally, his Leafs resembled the team that qualified for the playoffs last season.
“We’ve been begging, pleading, kicking, kissing, whatever we can do to try and find a way that we can play with some confidence,” said Carlyle.
The best source of confidence is winning and if the Leafs want to win more they’re going to have to play better defensively. There really is no way around it. “Sometimes you face two games in one night,” said Bernier, when asked what it has been like to see so much rubber.
Still, he managed a smile from beneath the brim of a Leafs ballcap.
As miserable as the atmosphere has been around the team since it came up with a shootout victory at the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, Bernier seems remarkably unaffected. In his mind, the Olympic dream isn’t even entirely dead with the possibility that Roberto Luongo, Carey Price or Mike Smith could suffer an injury prior to the Sochi Games next month.
“I think they went with three good goalies,” Bernier said. “There’s a lot of competition in net for Canada. You never know. I’ve got to stay focused and keep doing the good things I’m doing and be consistent in my game.”