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Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer makes a save against the Los Angeles Kings during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Los Angeles, California, January 10, 2011. (LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS)
Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer makes a save against the Los Angeles Kings during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Los Angeles, California, January 10, 2011. (LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS)

Leafs continue to ride Reimer's hot hand Add to ...



Who was that masked man, wearing an oversized black practice jersey Wednesday afternoon, preparing for Thursday night's game against the Phoenix Coyotes?

A closer look proved that yes, the rookie goaltending sensation James Reimer was still with the suddenly surging Toronto Maple Leafs, even if the team originally intended to send him back to the American Hockey League Marlies by now.

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"That's just common sense," explained coach Ron Wilson, of the decision to keep Reimer around. "We've got some momentum here. We're not going to toy with that kind of karma."

Sometimes, that's what happens to the best-laid plans - they can fall by the wayside, when unexpectedly good things happen. And Reimer's strong play recently has been the best thing that's happened to Toronto in a while. Even as general manager Brian Burke cautioned not to place too heavy a burden on Reimer, he understands the need to balance performance against development. Usually performance wins the day, especially if the need to string together a bunch of victories is acute, as it is with the Leafs right now.

Reimer has been a perfect 3-0 on this trip, is 4-1 overall, and is putting up the sort of stingy eye-popping numbers that Vézina Trophy candidate Tim Thomas did for the Boston Bruins earlier this season. Right now, Reimer's save percentage (.947) and goals-against average (1.92) would be among the tops in the league, if he had enough decisions to count in the official standings.

That, of course, is a sober reminder that these are still the early days in Reimer's development, which is why Burke is so cautious. The Leafs fully understand that NHL history is littered with examples of goaltenders who made a big immediate splash and then eventually came down to earth with a thud, as teams scrutinized their styles and figured out their shortcomings.

"Obviously, it's been a short run here," Burke said. "He's played extremely well, but he's a kid and this prosperity could end any time for a young player, so we're not putting too big a burden on him."

On the other hand, sometimes a chance to play is all a goalie needs to grab the crease and make it his own. For now and for as long as it lasts, the Leafs would be foolish not to ride Reimer's hot hand.

What Burke likes about Reimer most is his "placid" demeanour in the net.

"He's not like Denis Lemieux from Slap Shot," Burke quipped, "screaming at guys and flopping around in the net."

Reimer comes from the same junior team, the Red Deer Rebels, that sent Cam Ward to the NHL, where he made a name for himself as a young phenom. Ward won a playoff MVP award in the Carolina Hurricanes' 2006 Stanley Cup run and will be playing in the all-star game this year. Reimer is at the same age now - 22 - as Ward was when he asserted himself as a starter and pushed Martin Gerber out of the picture.

Leafs veteran J.S. Giguère was philosophical about the recent turn of events, and though ready to play, is prepared to bide his time until his chance comes.

"For me, the ultimate thing is to be ready when I get my call," Giguère said. "I'm not sure when that's going to happen, but that's the way hockey is. I've been in this situation a million times and honestly, it doesn't bother me one bit."

Reimer has the sort of pleasing personality that has made him an instant hit with his teammates. There is a charming aw-shucks quality to him - forever smiling, taking everything in stride. He is probably savvy enough to ride the wave for as long as he can, knowing that eventually every goaltender this side of Georges Vézina goes cold for a time.

"I've been getting a lot of texts from family and friends," Reimer said. "It's been a fun ride for everybody involved in my life as well."

These Leafs are having fun and the giddy optimism pervading Leaf Nation is equally evident in the dressing room, where they're happy and they know it and they're not afraid to show it. And if that sounds like a nursery rhyme, well, it fits. These Leafs are green as grass, but in recent days anyway, taking their first baby steps forward in quite some time.

 

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