Maple Leafs’ Jonathan Bernier grabbing hold of No. 1 role

Evander Kane tied it with 4:29 left with his first goal for Buffalo and the Sabres beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 in a shootout Wednesday night.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Stopping the first shot has seldom seemed so important. Then Jonathan Bernier followed it up with the second, third, fourth and fifth.

In fact, it wasn’t until a 33rd puck from the Buffalo Sabres was sent his way late in regulation that the Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender was finally beaten on Wednesday night.

Message received. Message sent.

It had been an uncomfortable few days for Bernier, who was summoned for a meeting with Mike Babcock this week after allowing questionable goals early in each of his first three starts of the season. The head coach didn’t mince words, either.

“He challenged me behind [closed] doors,” said Bernier. “That’s part of the job. I’ve got to be better. You can’t really take it too personally — he just wants you to be better.”

What Babcock really wants is to have no doubt. The only way there’ll be a competition for playing time in the Leafs crease this season is if Bernier drops the ball and turns it into one.

So after being outplayed by James Reimer, it was important for him to conjure a response.

That started with a strong opening period against the Sabres and continued throughout the evening. The Leafs may have been beaten 2-1 in a five-round shootout, but there was no reason to point fingers at Bernier.

“We need him to be a good goaltender,” said Babcock. “When you’re trying to make a decision every day about who should start it’s no fun for the coach either, so it’s just good when the guy who is supposed to be starting all the time grabs the ball and runs with it.

“It makes you a better team.”

Bernier was easily the best Leaf in Buffalo. Were it not for a ridiculous shot from Evander Kane with less than five minutes to play in regulation Toronto would have accomplished a rare feat — taking two points from a visit to First Niagara Center.

As it was, he earned them one.

Bernier closed the door as the Leafs killed off four penalties and denied a wide-open Tyler Ennis shot from the slot about a minute before Kane made it 1-1.

“I just really wanted to come out and really be focused all night,” said Bernier.

It was a far cry from opening night against Montreal or the second game in Detroit, when he was beaten on the first shot — a negative trend that first emerged last season. He had a much stronger performance in Pittsburgh last weekend, but still allowed goals 39 seconds apart early in a 2-1 loss.

Babcock called it a mental issue and took a couple days to decide who would play in Buffalo.

Bernier was the right choice.

“He really bounced back from the last game,” said P.A. Parenteau, who scored Toronto’s goal. “He was ready to go tonight. He stole the show.”

“If he’s not playing the way he was, you know, we’re playing from behind most of that game,” said Morgan Rielly.

“I thought he was the difference,” added captain Dion Phaneuf.

For the Leafs to start getting better results, that will likely have to continue to be the case. The players believe they’ve played better than their 1-3-2 record suggests so far.

Bernier has long felt he can be a top-notch No. 1 goaltender, but there have been plenty of ups and downs while making 113 appearances for turbulent Toronto teams the last two years.

He’s been handed the keys again and told to drive. The coach is holding him to a high standard.

“I thought our goaltender was really strong, which is really important for us and gives us a chance moving ahead,” said Babcock.

At least we already know who gets the start Saturday in Montreal.

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