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Toronto Maple Leaf Trevor Smith (23) celebrates his first period goal during NHL game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Islanders at the Air Canada Centre on Nov 19 2013. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Maple Leaf Trevor Smith (23) celebrates his first period goal during NHL game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Islanders at the Air Canada Centre on Nov 19 2013. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Leafs 5, Islanders 2

Leafs lean on goaltending again in win over Islanders Add to ...

It is the sport’s biggest equalizer, a factor unlike any other, one that wins teams championships and gold medals and just about anything else when it comes right down to it.

Goaltending can be absolutely everything, and right now, the Toronto Maple Leafs have it.

Up against a punchless New York Islanders team that was missing Thomas Vanek and is leaning far too heavily on captain John Tavares these days, the Leafs’ 5-2 win on Tuesday night was a tale of two goalies as much as anything, as the plucky squad from Long Island continues to be undone by its sagging men in the crease.

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Leading the way again for Toronto was Jonathan Bernier, who made his 35 stops look relatively easy, with only Casey Cizikas’s second period breakaway and a seeing-eye shot from Frans Nielsen with five minutes left beating him all night.

Even so, the fanfare after the game was all reserved for newcomer David Clarkson, as he finally potted his first goal as a Leaf with a late insurance marker, and Phil Kessel, who bumped his own five-game slump by sniping two goals while playing through a bout of the flu.

“I felt all right,” Kessel said. “I felt okay. I’ve been sick for a while and wasn’t feeling good yesterday.”

But it was Bernier’s calm, efficient performance that should have made him the first star, even though it was taken for granted and he wasn’t even named one of the top three.

In a game that could have gone off the rails, especially after defenceman Cody Franson gifted the Isles a breakaway to get back into the game with 12 seconds left in the middle frame, the Leafs goaltender held his team in it while things were close, just as he and James Reimer have on so many other nights.

So often, in fact, that their coach has grown tired of hearing about it.

“Goaltending seems to be a flash point in this market,” Randy Carlyle said earlier this week. “We never seem to stop talking about it.”

There’s a reason for that, and it has everything to do with the ugly history involved.

After all, the Leafs woes in the crease in the seven seasons before Carlyle arrived were so unbelievably and consistently abysmal that they singlehandedly made some of those Paul Maurice and Ron Wilson coached teams look far worse than they were.

Consider that, between 2005-06 and 2009-10, Toronto never had a team save percentage over .895, with Andrew Raycroft, Vesa Toskala and Jonas Gustavsson combining for the worst numbers in the league.

The Leafs even bottomed out in 2008-09 at a ridiculously low .885, which remains the worst mark for any NHL team in the last five seasons.

Now?

After 21 games, the Leafs two stoppers have both been all-stars, with a combined .936 save percentage that is second to only the Boston Bruins so far this season. The sample size is small, but their play more than anything has defined this team’s season.

And what was an organizational black hole for nearly a decade has quickly become Toronto’s primary strength.

If there’s a concern, it’s only that Bernier and Reimer can’t keep this up forever. No team in recent NHL history has had a save percentage of higher than .930 over an 82-game season and only a select few have even maintained a .925.

At some point, the Leafs netminders won’t be able to cover for this many sins, and more of the 36 shots they’re allowing a night – there were 37 on Tuesday – will turn into goals.

(In order to finish the season with a .925 save percentage, for example, they will have to allow roughly 25 per cent more goals a night over the final 61 games, which obviously would change the outcome of several games.)

Carlyle appears well aware of that uncomfortable truth, but he has also tried in recent days to downplay the dramatic impact his netminders have had in guiding his team to a 13-7-1 start.

“I think if you went through the teams in the league and the save percentages, there’s a lot of teams with a high save percentage,” Carlyle said. “So they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. Stop the puck. That’s their job. That’s what they’re paid to do.

“Are they over-exceeding in some of the situations that we’ve left them in? Yeah. They’ve outperformed. They’ve overachieved. In reality, is it good or bad? What would you rather take?”

Well, just ask Maurice. Or Wilson. They never had much help in that department, and it soured just about anything else they attempted to build with what were far weaker rosters.

Carlyle, however, has what every coach dreams of, and as a result, the Leafs have been able to weather a run of injuries up front all year. Now all his coaching staff needs is to sort out its defensive game, work on their breakout and start playing with more authority with the puck.

That and brace for the inevitable stretch when their goalies can’t make it look this easy, night after night.

“We’ve got to not give up as many shots,” Kessel said when asked to evaluate where the Leafs are, after 21 games. “Our goaltending’s been great this year. When your goalies are playing like that, you’re going to win a lot of games.” 

Follow me on Twitter: @mirtle

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