TORONTO — The door of the Maple Leafs crease is apparently open again for Jonathan Bernier.
Bernier will get the start when the Leafs host the New York Rangers at Air Canada Centre on Thursday night. It’s an opportunity for the 27-year-old to gain some traction in Toronto’s crease with James Reimer, the team’s No. 1 for the bulk of the season, struggling recently.
"The ball’s in his court right here," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said of Bernier. "Any time someone gives you a chance to get your job back you should grab hold of it. He knows all that."
It’s been a rough year for Bernier, who will play his 200th career NHL game tonight. Relegated to backup duty for most of the year and briefly sent to the AHL for a conditioning stint, he holds the second-worst save percentage in the league (.899) and is searching for his first win in more than a month.
Bernier has lost five straight starts since a 39-save shutout of the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 6. He’ll try to turn that tide against a Rangers team that lost in regulation for the first time in more than two weeks on Wednesday night.
New York was downed 5-3 by the Chicago Blackhawks, snapping a six-game point streak.
"Every time you step in there you just want to prove to yourself that you can have a good game and give a chance to your team to be in that game the whole game and hopefully come out on top," Bernier said.
His opportunity is borne out of Reimer’s stumbles.
Reimer gave up seven goals in a 7-2 loss to Chicago over the weekend and has allowed 16 goals in his last four starts. The NHL’s save percentage leader as recently as last month, Reimer has tumbled to 14th with a still-respectable .920 mark.
"He just hasn’t been as good," Babcock said. "But the good thing about it is he’s got a chance to grab it back next time he gets in the net."
An unrestricted free agent at season’s end, Reimer’s recent struggles coincide with a Toronto lineup that’s increasingly missing pieces due to injury. The Leafs are playing without forwards Tyler Bozak, Shawn Matthias, Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk, Milan Michalek, and Josh Leivo and could be without minute-munching defenceman Matt Hunwick against the Rangers.
Hunwick was forced to depart practice on Wednesday morning with an undisclosed ailment and is questionable to play against his former New York team. Twenty-three-year-old Viktor Loov was recalled from the Toronto Marlies as a precaution.
Loov has yet to play an NHL game.