The Toronto Maple Leafs picked up a 5-1 win against the Colorado Avalanche Tuesday night behind 34 saves by James Reimer. That continues a November hot streak by the goalie, one that has him firmly within the top 10 in league-wide save percentage and earned him a selection as the league's third star last week.
Reimer's revival has been a welcome sight for Maple Leaf fans. It's also a confusing one, at least for those who'd spent the past two seasons convincing themselves that he was a bum. Things change fast in Toronto, especially for the guys in the crease.
Let's remember that backstory here. Reimer was an unheralded quasi-prospect when he arrived in Toronto midway through the 2010-11 season, all smiles and "aw shucks" demeanor. It was supposed to be a cup of coffee, but he played well, and had earned the starter's job by the end of the following season. He looked great during the lockout-shortened 2013 season, even earning a Hart vote. At long last, the Leafs had found their goalie.
And then came one of those games, and everything changed. The Leafs' third-period collapse against the Bruins in the playoffs that sent the entire franchise into panic mode and quashed the reputations of more than a few of its players, Reimer included. Suddenly, he was the guy who couldn't win the big one, a deer in the headlights with shaky rebound control. It wasn't remotely fair -- the only reason the Leafs were in a position to collapse in Game 7 was that Reimer had single-handedly dragged them there. But it didn't matter. In the eyes of Toronto, Reimer was damaged goods.
Jonathan Bernier arrived via trade that summer and was all but handed the starter's job. But he got hurt in March, and with yet another late-season Leafs collapse under way, coach Randy Carlyle famously referred to Reimer as "just OK." Some heard an innocuous comment; others heard a coach on the hot seat making sure that his angry fan base had a scapegoat. If so, it worked; in the eyes of Leafs Nation, Reimer was done. The team spent two offseasons unsuccessfully trying to trade him.
All of which brings us to this season. New coach Mike Babcock made it clear that he wanted to see one guy win the job and keep it, and it wasn't hard to figure out who he meant. Bernier came into opening night with the starter's job and a starter's contract. But he struggled early, losing all eight of his October starts, and then he got hurt again. Reimer took over and played well. By the time Bernier was ready to return, he had to earn his job back.
And then, Sunday night, in Bernier's first start of the month, this happened.
This kind of thing isn't new for Bernier. Even when he's playing well, he has a maddening habit of giving up comically bad goals (like this one, or this one). But for some reason, they never seemed to stick to him. After all, when you're playing well, you can get away with a few stinkers. But when you're not playing well, and you give up one like that ... well, ask Vesa Toskala how that works out.
Overreacting to goaltending swings is a time-honored tradition for hockey fans in every market. And you can forgive Leaf fans for being a little bit sensitive here -- remember, before Reimer came along, their cap-era goaltending was a mix of Toskala, Andrew Raycroft, Jonas Gustavsson and Eddie Belfour's wonky back. So you can forgive them for instinctively going all 1984 here. We have always been at war with Bernier.
But short swings rarely tell the whole story, and in this case we have two careers' worth of work that tells us what both Reimer and Bernier most likely are: two similar average-to-slightly-above-average goaltenders. They're guys you can win with, but also guys you can replace fairly easily. And both will have their share of hot and cold streaks, like all goalies do.
Reimer was never as bad as he was made out to be during the past few years in Toronto. But Bernier isn't as bad as he looks right now. And while it's nice to see a genuinely good guy such as Reimer get some love, he'll come back to earth eventually, at which point Bernier will string together two good starts and we'll start all over again.
Both guys will struggle and both will shine, and at the end of the day, Toronto's goaltending will probably be, as a wise man once said, "just OK." For a team trying to kick off a rebuild with a patchwork roster, that's probably all you can ask.
(Just watch those center-ice shots, guys. They can be tricky.)