These were the words that mattered.
“Lots of time we don’t get run support. Tonight we had run support.
“I would have like to get a better result.”
The speaker was Mike Babcock, and all those words, really were code for what he wanted to say but couldn’t say because the culture of hockey, the culture of sport, often doesn’t support frank comments and assessments.
Had Babcock said what he really felt about the goaltending of Jonathan Bernier, well, you can bet somebody would have accused him of throwing the beleaguered netminder “under the bus.”
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
But a Maple Leafs team that struggles to score most nights got four goals — FOUR! — against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Steven Stamkos Speculation Night, and still dropped an overtime result.
Bernier was beaten five times Tuesday night, starting with the second shot and ending with the OT winner off the stick of Vladislav Namestnikov. He faced only 27 shots, leaving him with a dreadful .815 save percentage in his first NHL game after a conditioning stint in the minors in which he registered three consecutive shutouts and supposedly found his form.
In the fourth of those games for the AHL Marlies, however, he allowed five goals with Babcock in attendance, and including Tuesday’s 5-4 loss, he’s now allowed at least four goals in each of his last four starts for the Leafs.
No goalie can stay in this low-scoring league long with those stats.
Where this story goes from here is anyone’s guess. The waiver wire has interesting names on it most days, and nobody would be surprised if Bernier’s ended up there soon. Give the Leafs credit; they’ve patiently tried pretty much everything they can to get their former No. 1 goalie back on his game, and none of it has worked.
His last win was in April, and it sure looked on Tuesday night like any confidence he’d gained in the minors evaporated in less than two hours. He was back to looking small and uncertain, not a good combination.
The Leafs earned a 3-1 lead over the Bolts over 39 minutes in, and even when Tyler Bozak coughed up the puck unnecessarily to create the chance for Anton Stralman to cut Toronto’s lead to 3-2 before the second intermission, the home team still looked to be in solid shape.
But Bernier juggled a Val Filppula shot early in the third, forcing him to make a difficult stop on Ryan Callahan. Then Mike Blunden cruised down the left wing to beat Bernier on Tampa’s 21st shot, followed by Jonathan Marchessault’s fourth 36 seconds later on the very next shot, a drifter from the high slot.
When Bozak got caught again in the second minute of overtime, the Bolts got a 2-on-1 break and Namestnikov drained Tampa’s first and only shot of the extra session.
Of Bozak, who did score his 100th career goal, Babcock said, “I’m on him about his play without the puck.”
Of the OT verdict, “I would have liked to get a better result.”
Garret Sparks, you have to believe, will be back in the Maple Leafs net on Thursday, and as soon as James Reimer’s tender groin gives him the opportunity to return to action, Bernier will likely be relegated to No. 3 status.
At a cap hit of $4.15 million, with another year still to go, this is an untenable situation for the Leafs, but one that won’t be easily solved.
They could start Bernier again, but we’re probably at the point where someone starts spouting the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
For the Bolts, their second win in as many nights was an interesting result, for it came again without a goal from Stamkos, who now hasn’t scored in 10 games. At a time when his future as a Lightning player is a very popular item for hockey observers to chew on, he’s gone into a terrible slump, and his numbers are the least impressive they’ve been since his rookie season.
Namestnikov and Nikita Kucherov, his linemates, were the most dangerous Lightning forwards against the Leafs, and Stamkos was generally quiet, managing one shot on goal despite 21:40 minutes of ice time.
While the Leafs have the Bernier conundrum to grapple with, Tampa’s decision on Stamkos as he approaches UFA status — has that decision already been made? — will be a fascinating one, and one that will have a much greater impact than what Toronto decides to do with its struggling netminder.
Of course, these two teams are linked, with Stamkos certainly to get an offer, and a big one, from the Maple Leafs if he doesn’t re-sign with Tampa. Just as Babcock’s destination dominated the Leafs rumour mill last season, so too will Stamkos’s future be a big part of the Toronto conversation up to and until he makes a different choice.
It’s likelier than not he’ll start finding the net soon, and frequently.
Bernier’s immediate future is much less clear, and much less optimistic.