Of all the lineup decisions Ron Wilson has made this season, this would have been the most curious.
But with his top goaltender healthy for the first time since Oct. 22, the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach made it sound all but certain Friday that James Reimer will be sitting on the bench in Boston on Saturday.
That would mean having a backup in net for the 21st game in a row, while hoping Jonas Gustavsson can help reverse a trend in which Toronto has lost three times already this season to the red-hot Bruins.
Not that Wilson didn’t have his reasons – or that he couldn’t still change his mind.
“We’ve talked about it,” the coach said of starting Reimer. “But more than likely it’s going to be Gustavsson. Sometimes, what you want with goalies [coming back from injury] is to get them into the game-day routine. Backing up’s not a bad idea.”
By the time Saturday afternoon rolled around, Wilson had done an about face, and Reimer was, in fact, starting.
Which was the right call all along.
When Reimer went down with a head injury six weeks ago, goaltending immediately became a pressing concern for the Leafs, who haven’t had much to work with at the position for years.
But between Gustavsson and third-stringer Ben Scrivens, Toronto has managed to get good enough goaltending to stay afloat in the Eastern Conference, posting a 9-8-1 record since Reimer last played.
Both backups turned in some fine performances – and some iffy ones – along the way. But what Reimer will bring is an altogether different type of reliability, something Wilson acknowledged is needed at the position.
“He’s proven that he can be the No. 1 goalie,” he said. “He’s been very consistent since he made our team and played so well last year. Including this year. I mean, he hasn’t lost a game.
“When you have great confidence in your goalie, you usually score more and play pretty well in front of him.”
Scoring hasn’t been a problem this season in Toronto, as the Maple Leafs have piled up an average of 3.11 goals – third best in the league – through 25 games.
Keeping the puck out of their net has been a different story, as they sit third last with an average of 3.15 goals against per game, including allowing 3.35 a game in the 20 since Reimer made five starts to open the season.
The Leafs’ numbers have been even uglier against the Bruins, with Gustavsson and Scrivens allowing 18 goals on just 102 shots – a .824 save percentage that won’t win many games against any team, let alone the defending champs.
Contrast that with Reimer, who went 3-1-0 with a .930 save percentage against Boston last season, as part of an impressive run in which Toronto beat the Bruins with regularity.
And the 23-year-old hardly sounded like someone who needed to be worked in slowly after practice Friday.
“I’m ready to go,” he said, more than once. “I feel great. When I feel like I do, [the injury] is not even in the back of my mind at all. I don’t think there’ll be any hesitation out there.”
To be fair to the goalies, many of the Leafs skaters haven’t fared much better against the Bruins this season, including Dion Phaneuf and Joffrey Lupul, who are both a team-worst minus-7 in the three games.
Then, there’s leading scorer, Phil Kessel, and his no goal, one assist, six shots and minus-5 output as his woes continue against his former team. (Phil the Thrill has two goals and is minus-12 in 15 career games against Boston.)
That said, if there’s anything to Wilson’s claim that good goaltending begets a better performance from his skaters, Reimer was always the obvious choice Saturday.
“Obviously, we beat them a bunch of times down the stretch last year,” Reimer said. “I’m sure we can beat them this year.”
By the numbers
Leafs record since Jan. 1
With Reimer in goal: 24-10-6 Without Reimer: 14-14-3
Leafs goalies vs. Bruins (last three seasons)
Reimer: 3-1-0, 2.46 GAA, .930 sv% Not Reimer: 3-6-2, 3.57 GAA, .883 sv%