LOS ANGELES – The Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender was all over the puck. Deflections, point-blank opportunities, dangerous looks off the rush – nothing was getting behind him.
What began as Jonathan Bernier Night at Staples Center quickly turned into the James Reimer Show on Thursday.
And boy had this been a long time in the making. There is no way to skirt the fact that this has been an extremely trying season for Reimer, who nearly helped the Leafs pull off a massive upset of Boston in last year’s playoffs before losing his No. 1 job to Bernier this season.
The last three months have been the hardest of all. With Bernier outperforming his counterpart by a fairly wide margin, Reimer had only received six starts in 30 games when Leafs coach Randy Carlyle walked over to him in the dressing room during the first intermission on Thursday night and told him he was going in.
A "lower-body injury" that Bernier had already been dealing with got so bad that he was forced to pull himself out of a game against his former team. These were hardly ideal circumstances for Reimer to shine, with the Leafs trailing 2-1 after 20 minutes and the Los Angeles Kings seeking to match a franchise record with their ninth straight win.
Yet once he got in the crease he found a strange sense of calm. All of his worries and frustrations and concerns quickly melted away. And, wouldn’t you know, Reimer went on to stop all 31 shots sent his way to help Toronto pull off a 3-2 victory.
"Every time you get in there it’s an opportunity, whether it’s a full game or half a game or 10 minutes," he later explained. "(My thought process) was just `Go in there and take care of business – don’t think about the future or the past or anything like that.’ You kind of get those thoughts out of your head because they don’t help you very much.
"It worked out."
It was far from smooth sailing.
There was a collective gasp on the Leafs bench when Reimer went diving for a loose puck at the top of his crease and took Jarret Stoll’s skate in the head with 5:02 to play in the second period. The Leafs goalie has a concussion history and stayed down for more than a minute – prompting some of his teammates to start wondering if defenceman Carl Gunnarsson might have to throw on the pads (he played goalie until age 12 while growing up in Sweden).
Reimer had a "bit of a headache" and briefly considered going to the dressing room, but started to feel better during the ensuing commercial break. He spoke with the team’s training staff at the bench and was never subjected to a concussion test.
"It just kind of rang my bell – that’s all," Reimer said.
Leafs coach Randy Carlyle took the goalie at his word when he told him he was feeling fine. He also thought Reimer had taken the brunt of the blow from Stoll on his shoulder.
There was certainly nothing about Reimer’s play that suggested anything was wrong, especially when he made a jaw-dropping save on Anze Kopitar with his right pad early in the third period. The Kings centre followed that up by firing the rebound high and wide – triggering a sequence that saw James van Riemsdyk and Mason Raymond race up the ice on a short-handed 2-on-1 before Raymond buried the winning goal with a hard shot.
That put a frustrating cap on a night that could have been awfully special for Kopitar. He managed to score on Bernier during the first period but was left extremely frustrated by three unbelievable scoring chances that were turned aside by the Toronto goalies.
"It shouldn’t happen," Kopitar said. "Oh-for-three, I should at least get one or possibly two. I can allow myself to get robbed on one but not all three of them."
Even after Toronto managed to grab the lead, there were tense moments down the stretch. Reimer made two point-blank stops on Dwight King and survived a late goal-line stand by stacking the pads on Kyle Clifford during a mad scramble.
When the final horn eventually sounded, Reimer let out a huge scream. His 11th victory of this forgettable season, on the eve of his 26th birthday, was certainly one to remember.
"I just came and did my job," he said.
Depending on the severity of Bernier’s injury, he may get more of an opportunity with two games still to go on this road trip and 14 games left before the playoffs. The Leafs didn’t have much in the way of an update on Bernier’s condition after the biggest win of the season so far.
There was a real sense of satisfaction for a team that managed to win twice in three games against some of the NHL’s toughest competition during a swing through California. They were the 15th team this season to make a three-game swing through the state and ended up being just the fourth to earn at least four points.
That Reimer got to play a big role in it was the biggest twist of all.