TORONTO — Anyone who figured that James Reimer would simply settle into the backup role with the Toronto Maple Leafs this season hasn’t paid close enough to attention to the arc of his career.
Above all else, Reimer is a battler. And he’s coming off a year so disappointing that he figured his tenure in Toronto was over.
Yet here we are a week into a new Maple Leafs campaign and seemingly back at square one. Not only was Reimer kept over the summer, he’s already challenging Jonathan Bernier for playing time.
That old familiar goaltender storyline — the one coach Randy Carlyle despises most — has returned. It’s probably not going away anytime soon, either.
“I fully expect that’s what will happen,” Reimer told Sportsnet before Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime win over Colorado. “So I should be ready for it.”
What was left unspoken in that answer is the fact Reimer plans to outplay his counterpart. That’s basically the only way this will remain a focal point, especially after the way Bernier performed in the first half of last season.
Simply put: He was elite.
He was also the primary reason a defensively porous team found itself in prime position to qualify for the playoffs before the now-infamous collapse.
No one batted an eye when Bernier was thrown in for season-opening games against Montreal and Pittsburgh, nor when Reimer followed those losses by playing against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night.
However, when he was also given the chance to play against the Avs it suggested that the coaching staff is serious about conducting an internal competition. That’s all Reimer could have asked for.
He responded with a solid outing against a team that shares a number of traits — both good and bad — with the Leafs. In fact, they can basically hold a mirror up to one another and fully recognize the reflection.
There is speed, quick transition and dangerous offensive weapons. There are also bound to be prolonged periods chasing the puck around the defensive zone.
Colorado carried much of the early play on Tuesday but ran into a confident Reimer. He denied Matt Duchene in the opening seconds and turned away a dangerous Dennis Everberg rush just before the intermission to keep the score 1-1.
That gave the Leafs a chance to get more involved in the game and eventually exert their will. Still, Reimer had to stare down Duchene on a third-period breakaway and stand tall during a late penalty after he accidentally cleared the puck over the glass.
When Phil Kessel ended the game 34 seconds into overtime, it made Reimer a winner in back-to-back games for the first time since last October. He faced a much lighter night than usual with just 24 shots.
“Any time you get consecutive starts it’s nice,” said Reimer. “I feel good.”
The Leafs remain very much a work in progress. Kessel half-jokingly noted that a couple victories should quiet the panic in the city, but it will still take some time before anyone has figured out if this team is any better.
“We can score goals,” said Carlyle. “It’s the goals against that are our challenge and that’s what we’re going to continue to push for with our group.”
More than likely, it’s going to mean that the goaltenders have to be better than average. While the Leafs can reasonably expect some improvement in their own zone, they aren’t going to turn into the Los Angeles Kings overnight.
Under those circumstances, the man playing the best should expect to be busy. This organization isn’t in a position to favour one guy over the other. And given their histories, the contest between Bernier and Reimer should actually be considered much closer than it was by most when training camp opened last month.
In fact, it would be no surprise at all if they’re both asked about it all season long.
“I’ve got my cheat sheet of answers ready now from last year,” said Reimer. “It’s part of the process, it’s part of the excitement that is Toronto.”
You might be surprised at how little the goaltenders themselves know about how this rotation is supposed to work. For example, Bernier was never told directly by Carlyle that he would get the opening night start against the Habs last week.
Reimer is similarly in the dark when it comes to exactly what he needs to do to hold on to the crease.
“My guess is just like everybody’s guess — if you win you’re probably going to stay in,” he said. “But I mean that’s not necessarily the truth, either. You play well and see what happens.”
At least he’s taken care of the first part of that equation. We’ll learn more about the second when Detroit visits Air Canada Centre on Friday.