Every season has its unforeseeable events along its course and for the Toronto Maple Leafs many lie ahead. Still, here at the one-quarter mark, the assignment of erstwhile No. 1 netminder Jonathan Bernier to the Marlies is currently holding the lead in the Who’d Have Thunk It Stakes.
The second most unforeseeable event would have been that Bernier entered December looking for his first win, having gone 0-8-1 with an .888 save percentage and 3.28 goals against average with the Leafs through two months of the season.
Bernier wasn’t in the NHL elite, granted. Not a guy who had been an all-star or anything close, but still, when you sign a goalie to a contract that will pay him $8.3 million across two seasons, you don’t expect him to wind up in the land of the two-way contract on anything but an injury-rehab assignment.
You have to suppose, though, that the decision to send Bernier to the Marlies is a variation on the theme: a psychological-rehab assignment.
Unfortunately an MRI isn’t much use when you’re trying to project recovery from a wounded soul.
Through two games this weekend, in wins in Rochester Friday night and over Manitoba at the ACC on Sunday, what is there to say about Bernier’s play?
Too early to pass judgment.
Yeah, he picked up a 22-save shutout in a 4-0 win over the Americans. Fairly routine in fashion, even if Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe suggested that Bernier was somewhat busier and tested than the numbers suggest: “[Rochester] directed 21 shots towards him in the second period. He was actively involved, handling the puck a lot. I thought he was excellent. He looked like a guy who didn’t belong here.”
And yeah, coming back Sunday afternoon, less than 48 hours after, Bernier had another outing that was open to interpretation. Try reading a whole heck of a lot into this timeline.
• At 3:05 p.m., 20 seconds into the first period, Bernier faces a point-blank shot from Manitoba centre John Albert, and has to slide hard to his left to make a save. A little loose play by the Marlies defence produces a turnover and forces Bernier to make a tough enough save. At that point you were thinking that the L’il Leafs, with their third skate in as many days, might not play their tightest game thus giving the goalie some necessary work.
• At 3:23 p.m., more than 10 minutes into the game, a second shot on the Marlies net … well, sorta. It didn’t count in the official scoring. A strong-armed Marlies fan lobbed a white, stuffed teddy bear at the home team’s net. It landed in the crease but didn’t quite have enough on it to reach the goal line. Just one of hundreds scattered in every corner of the ice as part of the team’s holiday teddy-bear-toss promotion, with the prompt being the Marlies’ first goal of the game, that coming off the stick of Andrew Campbell for a 1-zip lead. Bernier had to skate a slalom course through Poohs and Paddingtons and Fozzies to reach safety at the Marlies bench.
• At 3:34 p.m., a shovel-wielding ice crew finally cleared all the toys off the ice and with the most well-stretched groin muscles in hockey, Bernier skated back to the cage.
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After a half hour of nothing much but meditation on the art and craft of his trade, and the absurdity of this game and his life circumstances, Bernier wound up facing seven shots over the next seven minutes. Though he didn’t make anything that would pass for a highlight-reel save, he was decent enough. Nothing like the 100-foot bouncers that tangled him in knots and found their way to the back of the net, breaking the Leafs’ resolve and their fans’ noses with repeated over-robust face-palms this fall.
It was a goofy sequence of events, nothing like he’d ever see in the NHL. If not a pass with flying colours, it was a pass of some sort. While the Marlies held a 1-0, 2-0 and 3-0 lead in the first period, Bernier kept it together.
In the second and third period, the Marlies piled it on showing why they are one of the AHL’s, and the city’s most intriguing teams and why the Moose are nine games under .500.
The final score of the game was 9-0. Bernier made 21 saves, maybe none more memorable (or needed) than the first one.
Maybe the best news, though, is that Bernier has gone into the assignment with a good attitude. Probably not as easy as it sounds given recent events and the scrutiny he faces. More than a few NHLers would resent being deposited in a milieu to rub shoulder pads with the youthfully exuberant, the holders of fading dreams and the resigned. And a few truly broken could wind up in the latter category.
Keefe offered his take on Bernier’s state of mind: “He goes about his business. First time that I saw him in the room and stretching … hanging out with the guys, he’s having fun.”
“I’m happy to be here,” Bernier said after the game. “I wanted to be here and work on my game. It was weird being in the [visitors’] dressing room. You see it a lot in the minors, guys getting sent down [on assignment]. I’m enjoying my time here.”
Having fun when sent down to the AHL after a most desultory start, landing in the visitors’ dressing room at the ACC, enjoying anything at all this year.