TORONTO – The door has been opened. Now it’s up to Jonathan Bernier to show that he has the stuff to be a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL.
For years, he’s been yearning for just that opportunity while watching Jonathan Quick carry the mail in Los Angeles. It didn’t arrive immediately after he landed with the Leafs over the summer – as even he thought it might – but there’s no question about Bernier’s status as of Friday morning.
With James Reimer lost to a head injury for an uncertain amount of time, you won’t be hearing an endless debate about who deserves each start for Toronto any longer. The crease belongs to No. 45 until Reimer is healthy again … at the very least.
Bernier arrived in Toronto with a sterling reputation, but only 62 games of NHL experience on his resume. And while his first handful of starts for the team have been superb, his 34-save appearance in place of Reimer on Thursday night will be remembered most for the weird winning goal he surrendered from more than 180 feet away.
That happened late in the third period when the puck caromed off the end boards and into the net via Bernier's skate. Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Ron Hainsey had fired a shot from his own zone and never in a million years expected it to end up in the net.
"It was just a bad mistake on my part," Bernier said. "I misjudged it."
While some thought that the play should have automatically been blown dead because of the NHL's new hybrid icing rule, the linesman correctly waved it off because Carolina's Radek Dvorak beat Toronto defencemen Cody Franson and Morgan Rielly to the faceoff dot in the offensive zone.
Even with that strange ending and a 3-2 loss to Carolina, the primary focus for the Leafs was the status of Reimer.
He lasted just 32 seconds before being knocked out of the game in a collision with teammate Josh Leivo - one that looked eerily similar to what happened with Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta nearly two years to do the day before.
The initial prognosis on Reimer was that he had a "headache," according to coach Randy Carlyle, who still felt that his goaltender would be able to skate at practice on Friday afternoon. However, given the goaltender's history with neck and head injuries - he struggled throughout the entire 2011-12 season after taking that hit from Gionta - you'd have to think that the team will end up exercising more caution than that.
Reimer's previous injury was actually determined to be a neck problem and Carlyle indicated that Leivo's knee struck him in exactly that location.
"There is a history there so you have to worry about (the injury) for sure," Carlyle said.
Bernier was a little stunned to find himself in Thursday's game before it was even a minute old. Still, he managed to turn aside the first 28 shots he faced before surrendering three goals in the final period of Carolina's comeback victory.
That brought the total number of goals he's allowed in his last two appearances to eight - a staggering stat given that he still sports a .940 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average on the season.
Bernier will face plenty of scrutiny if he ends up making a run of starts in Reimer's absence. It was only last week that he got the call in three straight games for the first time in his NHL career and, with Toronto being outshot virtually every night so far, there is plenty of work to do every time he enters the crease.
You can expect that trend to continue with the Leafs set to visit the defending Stanley Cup champions in Chicago on Saturday night. However, even with his counterpart on the shelf Bernier doesn't think his job description will change.
"Just keep working and get some wins," he said when asked about his mindset moving foward.
Barring a surprising return from Reimer, the Leafs will likely recall journeyman Drew MacIntyre from the Toronto Marlies to serve as backup. He was on a bus headed to Rochester, N.Y., with the American Hockey League team when Reimer got injured - although it wouldn't have mattered much even if he happened to be watching from the stands at Air Canada Centre instead.
NHL rules only allow teams to call on amateurs in emergency situations like this one, which was why the Leafs scrambled to bring in Brett Willows from the University of Toronto on Thursday. The 23-year-old was eating dinner at a local Thai food restaurant when the team got in touch with him and he ended up spending some time in the Leafs dressing room after making his way to the arena.
A steady stream of new faces has passed through that space in the opening weeks of the season. And with so many Toronto players now unavailable because of injury or suspension, there won't be anyone who plays a bigger role in their short-term success or failure of the team than Bernier.
Here's one thing we know for sure: The decision by Leafs general manager Dave Nonis to acquire another goalie capable of handling a heavy workload over the summer looks awfully prudent right now.