Randy Carlyle’s goaltending decision is becoming more difficult. And he’s not complaining.
“It’s a nice problem to have, definitely,” the Toronto coach said Tuesday night after a fine performance by James Reimer in a 3-2 exhibition loss to Ottawa. “Both goaltenders have played hard, made what you’d call 10-bell stops and they’ve kept us in, gave us chances in the games.”
Carlyle has said he will alternate incumbent Reimer and newcomer Jonathan Bernier for the first two games of the season, back-to-back visits to Montreal and Philadelphia next week. But that’s it so far.
Going into Tuesday night’s contest, the two goalies had almost identical pre-season numbers including a save percentage of 90.9.
After a parade to the penalty box against Buffalo on Sunday, the Maple Leafs got a rest from the rough stuff against Ottawa.
While Bernier made headlines with his fists against the Sabres, Reimer stole the show Tuesday in a losing cause before an announced crowd of 19,176.
Zach Smith, Jim O’Brien and Colin Greening scored for the Senators who did not dress Jason Spezza, Bobby Ryan or Erik Karlsson as they played the first of three games in three nights.
James van Riemsdyk and Dion Phaneuf scored for Toronto (4-1-1) in a game tied 1-1 going into the final period. The Leafs almost tied it up in the dying seconds with a wild flurry and Reimer on the bench.
It was a night of giveaways by Toronto and odd-man rushes by Ottawa (3-1-0). If the Leafs continue to play this way, they will need more than two quality goalies.
Ottawa outshot Toronto 37-28.
“I was the starter here last year and I had no intention of giving up whether they brought in Bernier or Lundqvist or someone who’d never played an NHL game before,” said Reimer.
But the ultimate goal is to ensure the team wins, he noted.
“The (goaltending) battle, sure it’s there. We’re both fighting for the same thing, but that’s secondary to what we really want.”
The game was the first for the Leafs since the ugly brouhaha with Buffalo, which resulted in suspensions for Toronto’s David Clarkson and Phil Kessel and a fine for Sabres coach Ron Rolston. Bernier started that game in goal for Toronto, challenging and then winning a decision over Sabres goalie Ryan Miller when the fisticuffs began.
Clarkson was banned 10 regular season games for coming off the bench to save Leafs star Kessel from six-foot-eight, 269-pound enforcer John Scott. Kessel was banned for the final three games of the pre-season for swinging his stick at Scott.
The bans allowed Clarkson to play Tuesday while Kessel sat out.
Clarkson met the media after the game, saying he would take his punishment. But it’s clear his teammates appreciated his actions in defending Kessel.
“The message I got from this locker-room was outstanding,” he said of his teammates
Sunday’s game produced 211 penalty minutes, including three game misconducts. In contrast, there were just four minor penalties Tuesday.
After a slow offensive start, Ottawa outshot Toronto 11-5 in the first period and tested Reimer repeatedly.
“He made big-league stops, played very well,” said Carlyle.
It took Ottawa more than six minutes to get its first shot on goal, a Corey Cowick breakaway stopped by Reimer. The Sens’ second shot produced another big save, off Smith directly in front.
Ottawa forced Reimer into more quality saves as the first period wore on including a stylish save on Mark Stone after the Sens hit the goalpost. Reimer then kicked out a pad to deny Stephane Da Costa.
But some class from van Riemsdyk put Toronto ahead early in the second period when the big forward, taking a pass from Tyler Bozak at the edge of the crease, controlled the puck and dragged it into the crease to get an angle before roofing it past Robin Lehner. Clarkson also got an assist.
Reimer stopped Da Costa again after he was put in alone by Cody Ceci. But Smith, breaking in alone, finally solved Reimer, slipping a wrist shot through his legs at 5:27 with Ottawa’s 16th shot.
Reimer did it again on a two-on-one, stopping Andre Petersson with a sprawling save. The Sens forward was hurt going into the boards after the shot, losing his balance as Bozak finished a check.
As the second period wore on, it was Lehner stealing the show with a fine glove save off Clarkson in the dying seconds. Ottawa outshot Toronto 27-17 after two periods.
The Sens pulled ahead at 6:48 on the third after O’Brien somehow shovelled in the rebound of a Cowick shot stopped stylishly by Reimer, who thought the puck had been kicked in on the goal. Greening padded the lead at 8:43 after a fortunate Ottawa bounce in front of net.
Phaneuf cut the lead in half, finishing a two-on-one with Joffrey Lupul at 10:13.
Ottawa hosts the Canadiens on Wednesday while Toronto plays Friday in Detroit.