Since their return from the Olympic break, the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t exactly been playing great hockey.
I cannot say they’ve been horrible, but I cannot say they’ve terrific either. They’re somewhere in between these two extremes, showing signs of brilliance at one moment, then slipping back into mediocrity the next.
(The type of play we’re seeing from the Leafs right now reminds me of how they looked in early January: another free-fall in the standings may be imminent.)
To their credit, the team has been able to salvage two points out of a possible four points over their last two games, but if we’re being honest, they should’ve been able to secure all four points. The first loss came against a New York Islanders team that the Leafs had on the ropes for most of the night while the second loss came this past Saturday against their arch-rivals, namely the Montreal Canadiens.
It would be easy to dismiss the first overtime loss as the result of rust following the Olympic break, but the Leafs were fairly well represented in Sochi (albeit for several losing squads) so it seems fair to counter that at least some members of the team should’ve been ready for action. You could also try to dismiss the Montreal loss by blaming the officials – in all honestly, what was that final penalty about? – but the fact remains that the Leafs’ power play was listless on the night and the team’s penalty kill has once again emerged a subject of concern. (Can they go a whole game without allowing a goal on the penalty kill?)
However, if you wanted to look for fault across these two games, the somewhat deteriorating play of Jonathan Bernier deserves special attention (I say “somewhat deteriorating” play because if we’re sticking to the honesty theme, it must be admitted that the Leafs don’t exactly have the best defence in the league). Earning the last two starts, Bernier has allowed nine goals on 65 shots over than span, and his peripheral stats are starting to move in the wrong direction.
When the Leafs returned to action after the Olympic break, head coach Randy Carlyle said he would revisit the 1A-1B goaltending arrangement that brought the team great success in the early part of the season. If he keeps his word, this means James Reimer – remember him? – will likely get the start tonight against the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets.
Reimer hasn’t started since January 25th when he allowed four goals in 28 minutes of action against the (suddenly high-flying!) Winnipeg Jets. His own play has largely declined over the course of the season, which explains in part why he’s seen so little action lately, but it also appears fair to say that the coaching staff sees more to like in Bernier than him (for whatever reason).
Thus, tonight might be Reimer’s best (and last?) chance to reassert his place on the team. After all, it was Reimer who led the team into the playoffs last season (unfortunately, it was also Reimer who quickly led them out of the playoffs), and he’s the one who stole the heart of Leafs Nation after his spectacular (and unexpected) debut in 2010-2011 (the same cannot be said about Bernier). Reimer claims to excel under pressure and that’s certainly one way to describe his current situation.
Adding to the pressure, tonight’s start (assuming he gets it) could help determine Reimer’s future with the Leafs. He’s a pending restricted free agency this off-season and although he might want to stay in Toronto, that decision is likely out of his hands. If he continues to struggle, it might make more sense for the team to trade him now as a salvage project than risk losing him for nothing during the off-season.
Given all this, Reimer better hope there’s no sign of rust in his game tonight.
Follow me on Twitter for regular posts about sports (especially the Toronto Maple Leafs), politics and other news topics: @williamefwilson