TORONTO — When a goalie has lost all confidence and is about to make just his second start in a month, you arrive to the rink expecting something bad to happen.
Jonathan Bernier, as is his custom, didn’t make us wait long.
The man formerly known as the Toronto Maple Leafs No. 1 goaltender hardly even waved at the second puck sent his way while it went knuckling by at 3:43 of the first period. For Bernier, it was the sixth goal he’s allowed in the opening 10 minutes of a game already this season.
The night wouldn’t get much better from there.
This, despite the fact his teammates spent good chunks of the game playing keep away from one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. This, despite the fact the Washington Capitals managed just one shot against him during a 17-minute span that ended early in the second period when a harmless dump-in turned into a Tom Wilson goal thanks to some major-league miscommunication between Bernier and Morgan Rielly.
And because Bernier has been star-crossed as well as shaky for much of 2015, Marcus Johansson would later have an Alex Ovechkin shot deflect in off his shin pad. The home fans had already turned on him by the time Justin Williams made it 4-2 with 26 minutes still to play.
Toronto’s fate had been sealed. There was no way Braden Holtby was going to give up five goals at the other end of the ice.
“I think we shrunk for sure for a bit,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “But I mean the puck’s going in your net, you probably should shrink. Like if you’re human at all you probably should.
“It’s just going in.”
We are well beyond the warm and cuddly stage here. There isn’t much resembling compassion being shown to a man who sports the NHL’s third-worst save percentage (.888) and has just one victory in 19 appearances dating back to last season.
My Sportsnet colleague Dan Robson, a goalie of some repute in his younger years, suggested on Twitter that Bernier would have been better served by a hug rather than the jeers.
It’s a quaint notion, but he has a point.
Bernier lost his No. 1 job to James Reimer earlier this month while recovering from an undisclosed injury. He’s played a couple good games and lost this season because of a lack of goal support. He’s barely played at all lately.
Absolutely nothing is going his way and he’s so far resisted the temptation to reach for any of the available excuses.
“I need to be better,” he said after a 20-save effort against the Caps.
If Reimer’s lower-body injury again takes him out of the equation for Monday’s game against Edmonton, Babcock will have to strongly consider giving 22-year-old call-up Garret Sparks his NHL debut.
He thought about inserting Sparks for the third period on Saturday, but stayed with the veteran instead. But there’s no reason to believe that Bernier will be shown the benefit of the doubt moving forward.
“We’ve been going through this since the start of the year, right?” said Babcock. “So I think there’s been a lot of talking going on. The bottom line is: just get to work and work hard every day and you compete real hard and you listen to the goalie coach and you try to find your game.”
The list of those who have lost their way and got back on track is lengthy.
There is no position in hockey that demands more mental strength. Confidence plays a huge role in performance.
“I can name a lot of guys that have been through it,” said Bernier. “Probably one of the best and probably everyone remembers — Patrick Roy did it in Montreal. A lot of guys are going through this and you’ve got to find a way on your own to get out of it.”
The path ahead isn’t clear now.
Each successive start seems to exact new scars on his psyche. The mounting losses are a big weight to carry around. Bernier is vowing to work harder on the practice ice, but he’s getting close to the point where a conditioning stint in the American Hockey League might make the most sense.
His coach certainly doesn’t sound like he’s going to tolerate many more nights where the Leafs play well and lose because of Bernier.
“You can’t give up four in the National Hockey League and win,” said Babcock. “Just impossible.”