It is the story that keeps on giving in Leaf Land.
And, try as the Toronto Maple Leafs do to quell the storm, it’s a question that will keep coming the more Jonathan Bernier dominates the net.
Is he the No. 1?
And if not today, what about tomorrow?
There are plenty of indicators that the battle for the Leafs crease has in fact already began to really turn Bernier’s way. In Tuesday’s 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders, for example, he was starting his sixth consecutive game.
James Reimer, meanwhile, has played only 182 minutes in the 14 games during in the last month since making 47 saves in a win in Ottawa, one of the better goaltending performances by a Leaf all season.
Bernier’s offering Tuesday night was one of the worst.
Three of the visiting Islanders goals came with an odour. Two were long shots that may have been slightly tipped but that were stoppable, while a third was a bizarre standoff between Bernier and the trapezoid.
On that one, he played a long dump in with his stick, the puck slid into the no-play zone accidentally and, as Bernier hesitated, Isles winger Michael Grabner grabbed the puck, wrapped it around the net and stuffed it home.
That gave New York – which had played the night before in a big win over Dallas and was then held up until 3:30 in the morning by travel delays – a 2-1 lead early in the second period.
“It was one of those games,” a clearly frustrated Bernier said after the game. “I thought the puck had stopped… it just kept rolling.”
To the rest of the Leafs credit, they battled back, first on a power-play goal by Mason Raymond to tie things at two going into the third and then on a Joffrey Lupul deflection with three minutes left in the game to make things interesting.
But it's over those final 20 minutes where stoppable pucks seem to find the back of the net against Bernier, ans so it was in this one.
“It wasn’t one of his better nights, that’s for sure,” Carlyle said. “That’s the way I’d like to describe it. We’ve called upon him too many times this year [to win games] and you can’t point your finger at one guy for your team losing. But you can’t give up five goals and win in the NHL.”
“He’s been terrific for us all year – stealing us points,” Nazem Kadri said of his goaltender. “I know he’s going to be the first one to admit he didn’t have his greatest game.”
The fact Bernier had started at all was peculiar. He had allowed at least one real stinker and five goals overall in a blowout 7-1 loss to the New York Rangers on the weekend, and logic dictated that it was time for Reimer to finally get his first start since Dec. 21.
Instead, Carlyle was much more philosophical about the decision, coming up with a parallel for Bernier’s situation rather than just going with the expected call.
“When you get bucked off the horse, I’m sure that every cowboy wants to get back on and ride that same horse,” Carlyle mused earlier in the week. “Is that the analogy you’re looking for?”
As for who he was leaning toward starting against the Islanders, he added merely there was some “cloudiness because of the last game” and that the coaching staff would go with the player that gave the best chance “in this situation.”
In the end, they chose Bernier.
And, to be fair, he has played exceptionally well for Toronto on the whole. Bernier came into Tuesday’s loss with a .928 save percentage that put him among the league leaders, and even with these last two ugly outings, he has had a respectable .916 in the past month.
But the gap separating the two goalies has been exceptionally small all year, so small that it hardly made sense to start running with one guy over the other with half a season left to play.
Bernier and Reimer’s NHL careers have also been so short to this point that we don’t really yet know what either can ultimately be, although the indications are that both can and should start regularly in the NHL.
The Leafs trade to acquire Bernier in the summer, give him a two-year deal for $2.9-million a season and start him in 26 of their 44 games to date obviously speaks to their faith in him, but Reimer has value, too, especially after last season when he was the team MVP and the No. 1 in a year they made the playoffs.
Even if that value is eventually on the trade market.
Now, Carlyle has continued to insist he won’t name one of his goalies the No. 1 anytime soon, saying again this week that he doesn’t think it’s fair to the players to do so.
But saying that and then giving one goalie a far longer leash than the other is completely contradictory, and that’s exactly what’s taken place this week.
To borrow from Carlyle’s analogy, one cowboy has been left in the stable an awful lot more than the other, and it’s about time he gets back on the horse.
Starting on Thursday in Carolina.
“This was not an easy decision,” Carlyle explained of starting Bernier. “Obviously it wasn’t one that worked out in our favour.”
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