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James Reimer #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs reacts a goal by the Pittsburgh Penguins during game action at the Air Canada Centre February 26, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Abelimages/2011 Getty Images)
James Reimer #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs reacts a goal by the Pittsburgh Penguins during game action at the Air Canada Centre February 26, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Abelimages/2011 Getty Images)

Leafs beat

James Reimer ready to return Add to ...

For a few hours, the Toronto Maple Leafs' season appeared to hang in the balance.

Leading the Atlanta Thrashers 2-0 and seemingly on their way to a ninth win in February, rookie netminder James Reimer left in the second period last Sunday after experiencing what he thought might be concussion symptoms.

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If it had been a concussion, if Reimer was out for a week or two or even longer, that would have been it for the Leafs' playoff hopes.

But by Monday morning, news filtered out that the NHL team's unlikely saviour had suffered only whiplash in the goalmouth collision and was fine. By Tuesday, he was in full gear, ready to keep the incredible start to his career going Wednesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"The symptoms have pretty much cleared up, so it's looking good," Reimer said. "There are so many bad stories about concussions, and they are a tough injury to heal from. If it's as simple as some tight muscles in my neck giving me a bit of a scare, it's all good. I'm happy that it's not a concussion."

Whether Reimer's banged up a little or not, Leafs head coach Ron Wilson acknowledged he will win or lose with the wide-eyed 22-year-old in goal.

"It's going to be his ball the rest of the way," Wilson said. "As long as we stay in the race. And I think he's up to it."

Reimer's injury Sunday underscored just how fragile Toronto is in the crease, as the club appeared to fold when Jean-Sébastien Giguère and his creaky groin took over.

Giguère faced 25 shots in the 26 minutes he played in what became a 3-2 overtime loss, never looking comfortable and kicking several rebounds into scoring position in his first action since returning from his fourth injury of the year.

Reimer, meanwhile, benefited from a much calmer group in front of him, turning aside only 18 shots in 36 minutes.

The Leafs also now have a third option in goal with Jonas Gustavsson returning from the minors and another heart ablation procedure - his third since joining the team - after an extended conditioning stint. After struggling badly with the Leafs, Gustavsson was excellent in five AHL games, posting a 3-1-1 record, 1.14 goals-against average and .955 save percentage.

Those are the type of numbers that would indicate he may have an NHL career ahead of him, but the Maple Leafs will keep him on the sidelines for now, using Giguère as Reimer's backup Wednesday.

"I think Giggy's healthy and he's capable of backing up," Wilson said. "If you need someone to go in in any situation, experience usually trumps."

If it comes to that, so much for the Leafs continuing their current 8-2-4 run, as neither Giguère nor Gustavsson has been able to offer even league-average goaltending this season.

What remains to be worked out, however, is what the tandem will be next season - which is why Gustavsson should get whatever starts Reimer doesn't the rest of the way.

Under contract next season for $1.4-million (U.S.), the man known as The Monster has yet to live up to that billing and could find himself in the minors full-time next season if the Leafs opt to bring in one of the many veteran goaltenders likely to be available in free agency.

Barring a late-season collapse, Reimer has his spot on the 2011-12 roster locked up. Gustavsson is trying to earn his, both for this season and next, and he realizes it won't be easy.

"I know it's a small difference between being the hero and being the guy everybody blames," he said. "You're always somewhere in the middle.

"It's a tough competition for me, but I'm up for it."

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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