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The Globe and Mail

Reimer (and Luongo) far from a focal point as Leafs win again

Toronto Maple Leaf goaltender James Reimer (34) reaches for the loose puck as Washington Capital right winger Joel Ward (42) also drives for it during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on Jan 31 2013. The Leafs earned a 3-2 win.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

They fired shot after shot at the Washington Capitals net, ringing up double their opponents' total in rubber put on goal in an ugly, penalty-filled contest.

But as the Toronto Maple Leafs offence laboured on the power play and at even strength through the first two-plus periods of play, little attention was given to the man between the pipes who has quietly resurrected his career.

James Reimer – predicted to be his team's downfall all off-season and into the lockout as talk of a trade with the Vancouver Canucks brewed – has been as far from a focal point as there is with this team.

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Imagine that.

The Leafs picked up their second win in a row and fourth of the season on Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre, downing the ailing Capitals 3-2 on the strength of two late goals by Nikolai Kulemin and Matt Frattin as the pair continued a run of strong play.

The offence was what broke through, but this was a victory that will only further quell any talk the team needs to land Roberto Luongo to save its season, the overwhelming storyline in training camp for a franchise that has had obvious struggles in goal for years.

But goaltending isn't, and doesn't look like it'll become, a glaring weak point for a team that went in with the least experienced tandem in the league.

In fact, for a goalie who incredibly hadn't started a home game since March 20, Reimer gave his team just about all it could expect.

"Honestly, no, I can't remember that far back," Reimer said when asked to recall his last start at the ACC, a meaningless 5-2 loss to the New York Islanders.

As for quieting the critics, the young goaltender said he realizes just how early it is.

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"You know there's always doubters," he said. "Especially in a city where the rumours are floating around. I always had confidence in myself, in my ability, and how hard I worked this summer. And the fact that I'm healthy. I know what I can do when I'm healthy.

"It's good to put some of those critics or doubters at bay. But at the same time, you've got to keep playing well or they come right back and keep asking questions."

In retrospect, health was obviously a key issue last season. Reimer suffered a head injury about this far into 2011-12 and was never the same, with his numbers dipping well off the norm as the Leafs sank in the standings until he was shut down for good in late March.

Others who have played the position at the NHL level have remarked that the biggest issue returning from concussion-related issues is losing your ability to track pucks and fight through screens.

"Honestly, I don't want to talk about it too much," Reimer said. "Health was a factor. But that's in the past. I'm healthy now and seeing the puck well. That's all that matters."

While 10 months is an awful long time to be off for a starting goalie, rust hasn't been a problem for Reimer since he looked a little out of sorts in training camp.

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In fact, he appears more confident and better positioned in the net under new goalie coach Rick St. Croix, who has loosened the restrictions on where and how he makes saves that were instilled by old school blocking guru Francois Allaire.

One noticeable change appears to be Reimer challenging shooters more, coming out to the top of his crease and cutting down angles – although he isn't willing to reveal much of what's new in his game.

"We're doing some things," he said. "But that's between me and Ricky."

In all, Reimer could be blamed for only one mistake that turned into a goal on Thursday and that came off a rocket wrist shot by Alex Ovechkin on the power play.

It was through a screen but probably stoppable. And it didn't ultimately cost the Leafs.

From that point on, Reimer became a spectator, watching on as a trio of young teammates in James van Riemsdyk, Kulemin and Frattin continued to follow coach Randy Carlyle's advice, crash the net and beat Michal Neuvirth at the other end.

("The message is that's where you've got to be," Carlyle said of what he told van Riemsdyk specifically. "That's where you're going to make a living. ... I asked him how he liked the front of the net after he scored the goal. Was a nice place to be.")

It wasn't that hectic a night in the Leafs goal, as the Capitals continued to struggle to generate chances, putting just 13 on Reimer in the first 40 minutes in one of Toronto's best defensive performances of a young season.

But after four solid starts, Reimer has a .910 save percentage, which puts him right about average and basically at his career mark of .911.

His sample size, in other words, is getting larger and, more and more, it appears that's what he can be expected to deliver. The last three seasons, that puts him right on par with goalies like Corey Crawford in Chicago, Devan Dubnyk in Edmonton or Ondrej Pavelec in Winnipeg, three other youngsters you can win with, given there's a solid defensive system in front of them.

That side of things obviously remains a work in progress under Carlyle, but one good sign is the Leafs are getting on the right end of the shot clock a little more often than the past two seasons.

Toronto out-shot the Capitals 40-22 on Thursday, pushing them to an average of 30-29 this season – a number that improves to 32-26 if you remove the shellacking Reimer took on Saturday against the high-powered New York Rangers.

If Carlyle can keep that trend going in the right direction, average goaltending may be all they need.

While Reimer isn't likely going to steal many games, he isn't costing them either.

Which leaves the talk about Luongo (a .920 goalie in recent years) on hold for now and perhaps for good.

"Reims has silenced a lot of people," Leafs defenceman Cody Franson said. "He's just been very solid. Obviously those guys [in goal] are in the limelight more than anybody, and it's not an easy thing to deal with. You've got to be very mentally tough as a goalie here in Toronto, and he does a very good job with that."

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