It was the night after last May’s horrifying playoff collapse, and James Reimer couldn’t get to sleep.
Six hours earlier, the Toronto Maple Leafs netminder had lain prone on the TD Bank Garden ice, motionless and devastated after the Boston Bruins had put the overtime winner past him, ending what had been a terrific series in which he stole a couple games.
But after going up 4-1 in the third period of that Game 7, things unravelled rather quickly, with the Bruins taking advantage of the young Leafs with four late goals as they became unglued.
Deep into that night, Reimer could only think about one thing.
“He just kept saying ‘This summer, I’m going to work my tail off,’ ” said Ray Petkau, Reimer’s long-time agent, who was on the receiving end of a middle-of-the-night call on May 13. “And he worked so hard this summer.”
A few months later, that appears to be paying off.
In a heated battle for the Leafs No. 1 job with Jonathan Bernier, Reimer has been extremely solid early on this season, posting a .942 save percentage that is fourth best in the NHL among regular starters and an improvement on the .924 he had a year ago.
More importantly, he has been just as good as the more heralded former 11th overall pick he is up against, splitting starts almost 50-50 – seven for Reimer, eight for Bernier – and helping lead his team to a 10-5-0 record despite some poor outings from his teammates in front of him.
The tandem arrangement is never easy for an NHL goalie, as they like to get into a rhythm and really own the net, but the two 25 year olds from different backgrounds have made the best of the situation.
“It’s been good,” Reimer said.” I don’t know if you’d say we’re best buddies, but we’re good. There’s no animosity there. There’s no nothing. We’re just having fun stopping pucks and right now we’re pretty much going back and forth.
“It’s obviously nice to get in a rhythm, that’s the best case scenario. But when you’ve got two of us, it’s not really going to happen, so you can’t expect that. The good thing is when you play, you’re usually well rested because you’re never getting worn down.”
Reimer vs. Bernier, head to head
Last season and this one
All kinds of predictions were made as to what would happen in the Leafs crease this season when Bernier was acquired from the Los Angeles Kings in late June, a little more than a month after Reimer had laid on that ice in Boston, a rink he’ll return to for the first time since on Saturday.
But rather than one goalie clearly outperforming the other, they have been essentially equals, with Reimer’s .944 even strength save percentage really not all that far ahead of Bernier’s .937.
Their numbers over longer stretches are also eerily similar: If you combine last season and this one, they have an identical .927 save percentage, putting them behind only Tuukka Rask and Craig Anderson in that span.
In their NHL careers so far, they’re both trending upward, with above average numbers (.917 and .916) and all signs indicating that they can eventually hold down a No. 1 job.
That situation is obviously going to come to a head at some point, as it’s clear both goalies want their own net and their own team. While tenable now, their tandem roles won’t continue beyond this season.
For one, if they continue to play how they have, Reimer will be due a substantial raise in July, 2014. Bernier then will deserve his own a year later.
They have been so good, in other words, that GM Dave Nonis can’t possibly even afford to keep them, even if he wanted to.
For now, however, it’s been a great problem for Toronto to have. Through 15 games, the Leafs boast the second best goaltending in the league (.935 save percentage) and their success has been both the season’s biggest revelation and the biggest reason they’ve continued to win.
Reimer, meanwhile, has kept defying his critics, who have picked apart everything from his athleticism to his glove hand and rebound control, even though he has been noticeably improving with each subsequent season.
But that progression shouldn’t be a surprise either: Reimer didn’t play organized hockey until age 12 and never had a goalie coach until he was starting in major junior as a 17 year old in Red Deer.
And John Ferguson, the Leafs GM when Reimer was drafted in the fourth round in 2006, 88 picks after Bernier went in the first round, remembers him as “somewhat raw.”
If anyone in an NHL crease was going to be a late bloomer and excel in his mid-20s, it was probably him.
“He’s always been the underdog,” Petkau said.
“That’s the thing with goaltenders – often you get better over time because you learn to read the play better,” Reimer said. “You just get more experience and face different situations. Once you see it 100 times, you read things better. You just get a little smarter.
“Having a goalie coach every day, it’s been a huge benefit. Being able to learn from Ricky [St. Croix] every day, it’s great. He’s there to say have your glove here, you’ve got to be here on the crease and stuff like that. It’s constantly reminding you and you get better at it.”
As for his battle against Bernier, those close to Reimer admit it has been good for him. The two have pushed each other hard in practice and both are so hungry to be No. 1s that the inconsistent starts haven’t been a problem.
Given the way Reimer has played, however, it’s hard to imagine he gets called the underdog much longer in this market.
So far, these two look like equals and predicting which one will persevere and stick beyond this season remains unclear as ever.
Follow me on Twitter: @mirtle
Get all the latest Globe and Mail hockey coverage on Twitter: @globehockeyReport Typo/Error