By the end of Tuesday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs will have played 57 games, or 70 per cent of their 2011-12 schedule.
But regardless of how that game in Calgary against the Flames unfolds, the Leafs still will likely not know who their No. 1 goaltender is. And it’s been that way almost all season.
Jonas Gustavsson is expected to start Tuesday for Toronto (28-22-6), as it begins a three-game road trip through Western Canada.
Gustavsson took over last Saturday, after James Reimer allowed four goals on seven shots in the second period of a 5-0 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
While Reimer didn’t have a lot of help at times, he was also at fault – especially on the game’s opening goal by Erik Cole that dribbled between the goalie’s legs.
After back-to-back shutouts to start February, Reimer’s status as the team’s undisputed No. 1 is once again in doubt after allowing 11 goals in his last 160 minutes of hockey.
“It’s not fun, that’s for sure,” Reimer said. “It’s not what we work for. But sometimes those games happen. … There’s not much you can do except put it behind you and work harder. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”
The Leafs have generally handled Reimer with care this season, giving him plenty of starts after he returned from a concussion despite Gustavsson’s strong play.
Head coach Ron Wilson, however, didn’t hold back in last Saturday’s postgame interviews when talking about his goaltending, making it clear he felt the Habs’ opening goal was a turning point in the game.
Wilson was slightly more diplomatic after practice on Monday, noting he understands why Reimer has had a tougher time this season after a strong showing as a rookie a year ago.
“This happens, unfortunately, a lot of times to goalies in their second year,” Wilson said. “It’s a lot harder. And it’s not just that the other teams have figured the goalie out.”
Wilson compared Reimer’s situation with that of Buffalo Sabres starter Ryan Miller, another high-profile goalie who suffered a concussion and struggled to regain his form.
“They’re having trouble coming back after that type of injury where you’ve been banged or crashed into the crease,” the coach said. “It’s a little bit in fits and starts, but we believe he can get the job done.”
Reimer’s numbers are off considerably from where he was a year ago, as his goals-against average has jumped from 2.60 to 2.87 and his save percentage is down from .921 to .906.
(Goalies with at least 20 starts have averaged a 2.54 GAA and .914 save percentage this season.)
Reimer’s drop-off has also come even as the Maple Leafs have tightened up defensively, as he has faced fewer shots per game than a year ago.
The shift in his save percentage has been significant enough that he would have allowed 10 fewer goals by this point had he been stopping shots at the same rate as last season.
Wilson’s theory about goalies and sophomore slumps, meanwhile, isn’t a new one. Other recent Leafs goaltenders, Andrew Raycroft and Vesa Toskala, experienced something similar after they had excellent starts to their careers in other markets.
Both played well initially, earning large paydays on multiyear deals, but were either out of the league or backups by the time those contracts were set to expire.
League-wide, since the 2004-05 lockout, Reimer is one of only 14 goalies to appear in 20 or more games in their first NHL season and go on to play regularly the following year.
The other 13 – a group that includes Carey Price, Cam Ward, Steve Mason and Gustavsson – saw their save percentage drop from an average of .912 to .902 in their second season.
Even during his remarkable rookie season, Reimer experienced some of that fall-off. He had a .926 save percentage in his first 10 starts, .919 in his next 10, and then .917 over the season’s final 15 games.
The general trend over his 60 NHL games has been slightly downward, although Reimer still has a career save percentage of .915 and as won regularly – 10-7-4 this season.
Reimer said Monday he hopes to get back in net as soon as possible, which shouldn’t be a problem with the Leafs playing back-to-back nights in Calgary and Edmonton.
“Any time you have a game like that, you want to get right back in there,” he said. “Prove to yourself, to your teammates, your coaches that you can make those saves when the team needs them.”