As Bernier struggles, Reimer takes over as Maple Leafs’ No. 1

Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier talk to media pregame before meeting the Colorado Avalanche.

TORONTO — After allowing a goal from centre and giving up a bad rebound on the winner in the final minute, Jonathan Bernier found one thing about his tough outing against the New York Rangers to be thankful for.

“It wasn’t Game 7 of the playoffs,” Bernier said Tuesday. “Thank God.”

Still, it was an important start with the shifting sands in the Leafs crease and Bernier should now be considered James Reimer‘s backup until further notice.

He stayed out for extra work after Toronto’s morning skate before hosting Colorado Tuesday and greeted a pack of waiting reporters afterwards by saying: “You guys realize I’m not playing tonight, right?”

A touch of humour is understandable given the circumstances: Bernier is currently mired in the worst stretch of his pro career.

He’s winless in eight appearances this season and has just one victory in the last 18 games overall with a .900 save percentage.

There was also the recent lower-body injury that opened the door for Reimer to seize control of the starter’s role, although Bernier says he’s back to full health. He just hasn’t played like it.

Sunday’s 4-3 loss at Madison Square Garden was particularly painful since it saw Derek Stepan skip a puck through Bernier’s legs from 100 feet away — it’s not the first time he’s allowed a long-distance goal — before Mats Zuccarello scored the winner with 54 seconds to play in regulation.

That appeared to be the final straw for Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who likes to ride one starter and had hoped it would be Bernier. Now he’s looking in another direction.

“(Reimer’s) been given an opportunity — or not even been given one, he’s just taken one,” said Babcock. “He’s done something with it and he deserves full marks. … He seems to have confidence right now, our team has confidence when he’s in the net. He’s played some good games for us.”

Bernier is a player that has never lacked for confidence, but obviously has some doubt to work through at the moment. He was on the ice with goaltending coach Steve Briere well before his teammates on Tuesday morning and the two men appeared to have a heart-to-heart conversation at one point.

He’s hoping that some hard work will quiet his mind.

“I think when things are not going your way, and you’re not making the save at the right time or you’re not confident or whatever the reason is, you’ve just got to go back to the basics,” said Bernier.

At least he has the benefit of time to rediscover his form. Bernier elected to sign an $8.3-million, two-year deal with the Leafs in August rather than waiting for a one year arbitrator’s award that would have made him an unrestricted free agent after this season.

His future is still somewhat uncertain — two rival NHL teams have recently had internal discussions about trying to acquire him via trade, according to league sources — but all Bernier is worried about is playing better.

“Just take practice like it’s a game and that’s how you build your confidence, especially when you’re not playing a lot,” said Bernier. “Obviously James has been playing very good so he’s going to be playing for a while.

“For me to make sure I’m ready for the next game that’s what I’ve got to do.”

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