James Reimer is far too much of a polite young man to say it, so he let his actions over the last nine days tell his critics to just shut up already.
Since April 6, the Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender beat three of the best goalies in the world: Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils (twice), Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers and Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens.
Not bad for a fellow who had to sit and endure while his bosses looked for someone else to do his job right up to the trade deadline April 3.
Since then, Reimer has a 4-1-1 record, including the wins over the aforementioned stars. His season is shaping up to be one of the best on record for a Leafs goaltender (although the lockout-shortened 48-game schedule makes comparisons difficult).
Reimer went into Monday – which ended in a 2-0 win over the Devils – with a save percentage of .922, tying him with Ed Belfour for the best regular-season mark of any Leafs goalie since the NHL started keeping that statistic. In 2002-03, Belfour, who’s only in the Hockey Hall of Fame, went 37-20-5 with a 2.26 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.
A lot of goalies Reimer’s age (25) would have been undone by such a public lack of confidence in their ability to handle the top job. (Not that your agent is blameless, here, either. There were many occasions when Leafs general manager Dave Nonis, and his predecessor Brian Burke, were advised to trade for Roberto Luongo right freaking now.)
But Reimer took all of this in stride, not to mention the various injuries that were probably responsible for his wobbles last season after a great rookie campaign in 2010-11. A big part of that is his Christian faith, which keeps him on an even keel despite all of the noise that surrounds the Leafs in the biggest media market in Canada.
After Reimer beat Price and the Habs last Saturday, head coach Randy Carlyle said: “We don’t ask him to win us games, we just ask him to give us a chance.”
That is exactly what Reimer did Monday against the Devils.
Through two periods, Toronto had a grand total of five shots on goal. It had Reimer, who stopped 32 in total, to thank for keeping the score 0-0 as the third period ran down.
He is reminiscent of Belfour in another respect: Reimer is more technical than spectacular. His most eye-catching save might have been knocking down a shot from Devils centre Adam Henrique, who was sprung on a partial breakaway by a stretch pass. The rest of the time, Reimer was a model of efficiency, such as midway through the third period, when he went into the butterfly stance to stone Henrique twice in succession, and then followed that up a minute later with a couple more stops to earn a standing ovation from the Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,425.
Perhaps no other Leafs player can claim more credit for what looks to be the team’s first appearance in the NHL playoffs since 2004 – which, not coincidentally, was Belfour’s last good season. Then again, that may not translate to postseason success, since the Leafs lost in the first round in seven games to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2003, although that cannot be laid at Belfour’s door.
Thanks in large part to Reimer, the Leafs repaired their once-notoriously-bad penalty-killing unit so well it was third in the NHL with an efficiency rate of 87.6 before Monday’s game. And they blanked the Devils four times on the power play before Phil Kessel scored on a power play himself late in the third period to finally give Reimer his just desserts.
“With the penalty killing, it starts with your goaltender,” Carlyle said recently. “He’s usually your best penalty killer.”
Right now, Reimer can say best player, period.