Leafs’ problems run much deeper than in net

After a shaky game against the New York Islanders, Jonathan Bernier was fairly short with the media, and his coach admitted it wasn't the young goalie's best game.

TORONTO – One day Calvin de Haan might describe his first NHL goal as an end-to-end rush, but that version of the story certainly won’t pass muster for Jonathan Bernier now.

No, for the Toronto Maple Leafs goalie, this one was just plain bad – with de Haan’s slapshot from outside the blueline caroming after Dion Phaneuf’s stick and into the net for what proved to be a New York Islanders game-winner on Tuesday night.

At least this was a fresh way to lose. More often than not this season, Bernier and counterpart James Reimer (more on him later) have been forced to don capes just to keep the blue and white in a game. Against an exhausted Islanders team, which was playing on back-to-back nights and didn’t arrive in Toronto until 4 a.m., the Leafs actually managed to limit the amount of scoring chances against.

However, it was Bernier who didn’t seem up to the task with three of the goals coming on plays he’d like to have back. The only problem is that this isn’t a team that has any business blaming its goaltenders for anything.

"It wasn’t one of his better nights that’s for sure," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said of Bernier after the 5-3 loss. "That’s the way I’d like to describe it. I think we’ve called upon him too many times this year in a lot of situations and you can’t point your finger at one guy for your team losing."

There’s plenty of finger pointing to go around for a 21-18-5 team that could soon fall out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot for the first time all season. Toronto currently finds itself just two points up on Carolina for the second wild card position and will visit the Hurricanes on Thursday night.

While Carlyle seems to be growing frustrated with his players’ inability to sustain any urgency throughout games, his own strategy with the goaltenders is now in question. The team had its best success this season when Bernier and Reimer were essentially splitting starts – "1A and 1B" in the coach’s terminology – but Reimer has barely seen the net since getting pulled during a Dec. 21 game against Detroit (the same game when "Hockey Night in Canada" caught him glaring at Carlyle on the bench).

In the meantime, Bernier reeled off a career-best six straight starts and earned the chance to go back in Tuesday despite getting yanked himself during an ugly 7-1 loss to the Rangers on Saturday. He ended up allowing four goals on 24 shots to the Islanders.

"This was not an easy decision," Carlyle said. "Obviously, it wasn’t one that worked out in our favour."

Bernier may pass the eye test more than Reimer for the Leafs, but the truth of the matter is that neither player has done enough to establish himself over the other. In fact, both have above average numbers with a .926 and .923 save percentage, respectively. As long as that continues there doesn’t seem to be any reason to leave one on the bench for a couple weeks at a time.

The three-game winning streak that preceded these most recent losses came with Bernier in a groove and clearly put him in the mindset of a No. 1. He was incredulous after Tuesday’s game when asked about being allowed to stay in the net after allowing a couple bad goals. "Why would I get pulled?" Bernier said.

Toronto had a 1-0 lead until Kyle Okposo’s shot deflected off his blocker and in – a shot he should have stopped. Then Michael Grabner made it 2-1 after Bernier came out to play the puck and was forced to leave it for him because it rolled into the goalie’s no-touch zone near the corner.

"I thought the puck was stopped and I looked up to see where the guy was and the puck was still rolling," Bernier explained. "That was my bad."

New York’s third goal, on a power play, came after a fortunate bounce in front but the fourth one from de Haan in the neutral zone proved to be a back-breaker.

Of course, the most troubling part of the entire evening was the fact that deeper problems lie beneath the surface. It’s a rare night when goaltending costs the Leafs a chance at two points. Had Bernier been better, there’s no guarantee that they would have beaten the Isles.

"I just think we’ve got to get a lot more aggressive," Carlyle said. "We’re not skating and being the tenacious Toronto Maple Leafs that I expect or everybody expects. … We did some good things but it just seemed like we were climbing a mountain.

"Every time we got things going, got back to even, we couldn’t push it over the mountain. I thought we played passive or afraid to make a mistake versus being aggressive and going after it, you know?"