TORONTO – There was every reason to believe that James Reimer had already had his last significant moment with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Most followers of the team assumed as much. Even Reimer felt that it might be the case after watching counterpart Jonathan Bernier return from a groin strain 10 days ago.
“Lots of things go through your mind,” he acknowledged. “That’s a plausible train of thought.”
At least that’s how he was thinking until waking up Thursday morning with a premonition. For whatever reason, he couldn’t shake the thought that he would be called on at some point against the Boston Bruins.
“It’s funny, I actually told my wife before I left for the rink today that I had a feeling I was going in,” said Reimer. “I didn’t know why – sometimes you just get those feelings. … I was ready.”
It’s a good thing, too.
Not only did he help a Leafs team that was in full retreat mode manage to pull out a 4-3 overtime victory over the Bruins, he’s also now shouldering the team’s flimsy playoff hopes with four games left on the schedule. Go figure.
The Leafs didn’t have a specific update on Bernier, but it would be surprising if we saw him back in action before the end of next week. The goaltender was in considerable pain while being helped off the ice – his groin problem was re-aggravated when Patrice Bergeron was accidentally thrown on top of him by teammate Paul Ranger – and he’ll undergo another MRI on Friday to determine just how bad the damage is.
In the meantime, Reimer gets one more shot at redemption. To call this a trying season for the Leafs goaltender would be an understatement. It’s not just that his No. 1 job was taken away by Bernier; somewhere along the line Reimer started feeling like he’d lost the support of key members of the organization, most notably coach Randy Carlyle.
That played out quite publicly during a game in Detroit last month when Carlyle made a point of saying Reimer’s performance had been “just OK.” That was early in the eight-game losing streak that dropped Toronto of the playoff picture and clearly got to Reimer, who struggled in three starts afterwards.
There was a lot behind the simple assessment Carlyle provided after Reimer stopped 10 of 11 Bruins shots in relief on Thursday night.
“Good for him,” he said. “We needed that and he needed that. It’s great.”
A loss would have been crushing for a Leafs team looking to mount an unlikely charge back to the post-season. Even after building a 3-1 lead over Boston heading into the third period, nothing felt safe – undeniably because of last spring’s Game 7 collapse, not to mention Toronto’s penchant for sitting back in this kind of situation.
Carlyle tried to remind his team to “breathe” as the Bruins poured it on during the final 20 minutes and eventually tied the game. He felt that the recent losing slide was compounded because everyone was paralyzed by fear when things started to go wrong.
Toronto managed to compose itself well enough to kill off a Nikolai Kulemin penalty that stretched into overtime before seeing Bruins defenceman Torey Krug get sent to the box for hauling down Tyler Bozak. The Leafs were on the power play when Nazem Kadri lifted a gorgeous shot over Chad Johnson at 2:51 that sent the Air Canada Centre into celebration.
Kadri had seemingly been in Carlyle’s doghouse on this night and only finished with just 11:40 of ice time – the second-lowest total on the team. That was mostly forgotten thanks to one of the biggest goals of the Leafs season.
With so much on the line, everyone came to play against the best team in the Eastern Conference. Phil Kessel had two more assists against his former team – any talk of him being paralyzed by the sight of the Bruins is over – while linemate James van Riesmdyk hit the 30-goal mark for the first time in his NHL career.
As ugly as things got in the third period, that was to be expected given where the teams are right now. The Leafs are essentially fighting for the right to face Boston again in the first round but still need a lot to break their way for it to happen.
Columbus won in Philadelphia on Thursday night and maintains a one-point lead for the final wild card spot – with two games in hand. The focus for Toronto has to be on trying to run the table. They might even fall short if they’re able to accomplish that.
“We're alive, but there's a lot of things that have to go our way,” said Carlyle. “All we're going to focus on is what we can control, and we can control our effort and our commitment to our team game. That's what we're going to focus on.”
On this night, the goalie and his coach left the rink on the same page. With a playoff spot on the line, everything that happened earlier this year is water under the bridge.
“I’m going to try and go in there and just give the guys a chance,” said Reimer. “I’ve got belief in this team and I know we’ve got the passion and the desire to get it done. We’re going to pull together and give it all we’ve got.”