The Toronto Maple Leafs waited until the final minute, but just prior to their game vs. the St. Louis Blues, the team announced that Jonathan Bernier would indeed start between in goal on Tuesday night.
Bernier took a full warm-up in the home team’s net at the Air Canada Centre in the morning in preparation for facing the St. Louis Blues, the typical routine for the goalie that gets that night’s start.
Fellow goalies James Reimer and third-stringer Drew MacIntyre had to share the other net and stayed out longer than Bernier.
Bernier has missed the last five games – all losses in regulation – for Toronto with a groin injury suffered during the team’s successful roll through California a week ago. Ever since, Reimer has struggled to fill-in and the Leafs have fallen into eighth in the Eastern Conference.
Earlier in the day notoriously reluctant to say much about goalies or injured players on game days, Leafs coach Randy Carlyle wasn’t very forthcoming with Bernier, who fits into both categories.
“Everything’s possible,” Carlyle said, before adding he was waiting on a medical update.
Even with Bernier's return the Leafs have a monumental task to try and finally end their losing skid against St. Louis.
The Blues are on pace for 119 points and to win the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top team at the end of the year and lead the league in all sorts of statistical categories that are key weaknesses for Toronto. St. Louis is fourth in goals for, third in goals against, top 10 on both special teams and the third best team at even strength.
They’re big, strong, strong on the puck – as a 55 per cent possession team of late – and very well coached, with Ken Hitchcock even taking some of what he learned at the Olympics in Sochi with Team Canada and applying it to his troops since the break.
The Leafs, however, have had a way of getting up for tough teams lately, as evidenced by wins over Anaheim and Los Angeles before their skid, so it’s probably unwise to count them out altogether.
If they don't get a single point on Tuesday, it would be another near-fatal blow to the playoff hopes.
How Bernier’s health is and whether or not he can be 100 per cent right away will be huge given the likelihood Toronto is going to be badly outshot in this one.
Ryan Miller, who is still settling in with his new team but always seems to play well against the Leafs, will be in goal for St. Louis.
“We’re playing a team that forces you to earn your space on the ice,” Carlyle said. “When you look at teams that are 100-point teams you say they’re doing some things that we think we could do and we should do.”
“Obviously this is a good hockey team,” Leafs vet Joffrey Lupul said. “It’s not going to be easy. But we’ll be ready to play tonight.”
Projected Leafs lineup
JVR – Bozak – Kessel
Lupul – Kadri – Kulemin
Raymond – Bolland – Clarkson
Bodie – McClement – (Orr)
Gunnarsson – Phaneuf
Gardiner – Franson
Gleason – Rielly
Projected Blues lineup
Steen – Backes – Oshie
Morrow – Sobotka – Schwartz
Paajarvi – Berglund – Ott
Porter – Lapierre – Reaves
Bouwmeester – Pietrangelo
Jackman – Polak
Colaiacovo – Shattenkirk