TORONTO – For most of the night, James Reimer might as well have been the only player in blue and white on the ice.
It was a defensively porous version of the Toronto Maple Leafs that showed up at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday — that’ll be Exhibition Game No. 6 of 8 in your programs — and the goaltender frequently found himself in the line of fire from the Ottawa Senators as a result.
But a funny thing happened amidst the ghastly turnovers and 2-on-1′s and occasional breakaways: Reimer stood tall. He bailed out teammates. And for the second straight start he offered up a pretty good example of why no one should simply be awarding the team’s No. 1 goalie job to Jonathan Bernier.
Randy Carlyle certainly isn’t prepared to do that, not after what he has seen over the last week or two. Both men have played well in training camp and the coach says they’ll split the opening two regular-season starts – next Tuesday at Montreal and next Wednesday at Philadelphia.
Beyond that, the crease is up for grabs.
“We’ll just measure it as we go forward,” said Carlyle.
Reimer is unabashed in proclaiming that the job is his to lose. What is often overlooked about the 25-year-old is that despite his ever-present smile and happy-go-lucky personality there is a strong competitive fire that burns within.
It is no coincidence that he made it this far after coming from humble beginnings in the tiny village of Morweena, Man.
Heck, Reimer didn’t even make the opening night start for the Leafs after the lockout ended back in January. It also didn’t take him much time to wrestle the job back from Ben Scrivens before helping Toronto end its playoff drought at nine years.
There is no evidence that he is going to blink now.
Even though Bernier comes with more hype and a bigger contract, Reimer seems more determined than ever to hold on to the No. 1 role.
“I was the starter here last year and have no intention of giving it up, whether they brought in Bernier or (Henrik) Lundqvist or someone who had never played a NHL game before,” he said after making 34 saves in Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to the Senators.
Most observers believed the goalie battle was going to be a major talking point around the Maple Leafs all month. It was supposed to be the story of training camp. In truth, it has barely registered at all to this point.
Perhaps it was simply lost in the line brawl with the Buffalo Sabres or David Clarkson’s 10-game suspension or Cody Franson’s contract stalemate, but at least some of the talk has been muted by the fact neither man has distinguished himself over the other.
One night you see Reimer put in a good performance. The next Bernier makes some “10-bell saves” – to borrow Carlyle’s phrase. Then Reimer does it again.
The wrestling match might continue into October, November and beyond.
After all, these are two highly motivated goalies entering what should be the prime of their careers while chasing the same goal. There isn’t another tandem in the entire NHL built exactly like it.
“I don’t think anyone wants to be a backup,” Bernier said.
An interesting part of the current dynamic is the different paths each man has taken to get here. While Bernier was a first-round draft pick who made his NHL debut with the L.A. Kings as a teenager, Reimer started off in the ECHL and didn’t receive his first extended shot with the Leafs until 2011.
However, he no longer sees himself as an underdog.
“I’ve never been a first-rounder, never been highly touted per se — mine would be a more of an underdog story from the start I guess,” Reimer said. “Now up here, I don’t really feel like the underdog in any situation. There’s definitely some highly touted goalies out there but … I think it’s more of what have you done for me lately, not what have you done in the past.”
And that is the only thing either Leafs goaltender can really control each when he steps on the ice.
On Tuesday, it just happened that Reimer was standing tall in a low-spirited exhibition game, but soon enough he’ll be expected to do the same thing in one that actually matters. Everything about his demeanour and performance so far suggests that he’s ready for what’s to come.
“More important than the competition or the battle (with Bernier) — whatever you want to call it — (my job) is to give the guys a chance to win hockey games,” Reimer said. “The battle, sure it’s there. We’re both fighting for the same thing.