TORONTO – Jonathan Bernier had made a mere 54 starts in the NHL before he joined the Maple Leafs this past summer.
"I played a lot in junior, played a lot in the AHL, but last three years I didn't play much, so I kind of forgot how to prepare myself," said Bernier in conversation with the Leaf Report. "I forgot how hard it is to be ready every night."
He is rapidly rediscovering what it takes.
Making his third straight start in a rare Sunday night affair, the 25-year-old stopped 41 shots as the Leafs picked up back-to-back wins for the first time in three weeks, topping the Hurricanes 5-2 at the ACC.
Bernier has sizzled with a .949 save percentage in his last five games, settling into a groove in the Toronto crease. He appears firmly on track to start in Wednesday's Winter Classic.
"That's up to Randy," said Bernier with a smile, now ranked eighth in the NHL with a .930 save percentage this season. "Obviously, it'd be a really nice experience, but like I've said since the beginning, you can't control what Randy is going to decide. That's up to him."
Bernier spoke earlier in the year about the mental and physical preparation required to play near-nightly in an NHL crease. Having tended goal as the back-up to Jonathan Quick for years with the Kings, he had forgotten the formula it took for success.
With 23 starts already as a Leaf, he is picking it up once more.
"You've got to learn when to push yourself in practice or when to rest yourself, all those little things; when to work in the gym, when not," he explained. "You don't want to overwork, but at the same time you need those good practices to get back in the game and feel good about yourself."
He is admittedly better prepared for the workload, one that is considerably more taxing night to night than what he experienced in Los Angeles. Sunday marked the fifth time he faced at least 40 shots this season. It's just another step in the learning process.
"I'm sure I'll be a different goalie or different person in two years from now," he said. "I never really played that much in this league so far. It's all new for me."
1. Bozak's Impactful Return
Playing his first game since Dec. 3, returning from an oblique injury, Tyler Bozak made a splash with three assists against Carolina. The 27-year-old had a hand in both Phil Kessel goals – Kessel's team-leading 19th and 20th – adding his 10th assist this season on Paul Ranger's second goal of the year.
Bozak, who entered the night averaging upwards of 21 minutes a game, was held to 17-plus on Sunday night, his ice-time managed after more than three weeks on long-term injured reserve.
That will change in the near future according to Carlyle, who relies on the fifth-year centre in all situations.
"We think a lot of a player by the number of minutes he plays," said Carlyle. "Usually that's a good indication of how coaches feel about players."
The Leafs coach spoke of Bozak's intangibles.
"He's a smart hockey player," Carlyle continued. "He does a lot of little things that don't get noticed on the score-sheet and he puts himself in a position to be the safety valve for the other two players he's playing with."
Alongside Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, Bozak and the Toronto top line enjoyed a flurry of opportunities against the Hurricanes, including a handful of breakaways for Kessel, but also had their issues in the defensive zone, being outshot by the trio of Jordan Staal, Alexander Semin and Nathan Gerbe.
Gerbe scored Carolina's first goal of the game with the line out on the ice.
Prior to the game, van Riemsdyk spoke of Bozak's ability to impact the trio as a "safety valve" defensively.
"We're usually going against other team's top offensive units and he's really good at competing with them down-low, getting the puck out of the zone," said van Riemsdyk. "When he does that…it gives all of us more energy to play offence. When you're not getting hemmed in as much and you're good defensively. you have more energy to expend on offence."
Bozak now has eight points in the past five games he's played, also winning 14 of 26 draws on this night.
2. Face-off Work
Carlyle stressed the need for increased competitiveness in the face-off circle prior to Sunday's game and he got it. The Leafs won 60 per cent of their draws against the Hurricanes, led by Jay McClement, who emerged victorious on 15 of 24 face-offs.
"If you're not having success against the individual, then I'm about being competitive and I believe that our team has to become more competitive in those small areas," said Carlyle earlier in the day. "When there's a 50-50 opportunity to come up with the puck, I think we have to show more tenacity, more bite, and what it comes down to, it's more competitive spirit."
Jerred Smithson, reassigned to the Marlies on Saturday, recently offered a similar sentiment in conversation with the Leaf Report.
"It's just wanting to win the battle more than that other guy," said Smithson, who held a 59 per cent mark in 17 games with the Leafs. "That's the biggest thing for me, anyway. You know there's always different techniques, but just the will and the compete going into the circle and wanting it just that much more."
Outside of Smithson and McClement, Toronto centres have all dipped under the 50 per cent mark. Even Bozak, long the team's best face-off man, has fallen to 46 per cent in 17 games this season.
The Leafs, at 47.2 per cent this season, sit 25th overall on the draw.
3. Opposing Strategy
Despite beating the Hurricanes handily, the Leafs did not play what could be considered a smooth game. Carlyle felt his team was "overmatched in a lot of areas" and were outshot 43-27 and out-attempted 75-49.
The Leafs coach has identified the formula of opposing teams.
"They got to the red-line and they dumped the puck in," he said of the Hurricanes. "That seems to be the mandate for teams coming in here: you try to force us to play as much defence [as possible] in our own zone."
Carlyle said opponents have been intent on forcing his team to recover pucks down low and along the walls in the Toronto zone, pinching their defencemen where possible for added support.
"It's no secret," he said. "We haven't been able to hand that or manage the game properly in that area and we've got to get better at it."
4. Best Period as a Leaf?
David Clarkson left the bench for the final 13 minutes of the second period. The 29-year-old required stitches for a gash on his elbow. He returned a different player for the final frame.
"Probably the best period of hockey he's played for us," said Carlyle of Clarkson's third period.
Employed in checking line duties alongside McClement and Nik Kulemin for the past five games, Clarkson seems to be gradually finding a role with the Leafs. On Sunday, his unit's duties included a showdown with Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu.
And though they were outshot, the trio managed to keep Carolina's top line off the scoresheet.
"We feel confident that we can put that line on the ice against any line we've played so far," Carlyle said. "So when you have that type of confidence in the group, the sum of the three, it's a good sign for the coaching staff. We feel confident in those players. And if you notice their minutes, they get to play a lot."
5. Holland's Opportunity
With Bozak back from a 12-game stint on injured reserve and a checking unit of Clarkson, Kulemin and McClement remaining intact, Peter Holland moved down the lineup Sunday into the fourth line centre position.
The shift wasn't because of performance.
Holland has made good use of an opportunity presented by the team's injury troubles. He entered the evening with eight points in the previous 10 games.
"I thought I've come in and I've gotten stronger pretty much on a consistent basis, game in, game out," said the 22-year-old, shooting a blistering 23 per cent on six goals this season. "Whether I'm playing five minutes or 15 minutes, I think I'm just trying to do my best to earn the respect of my coaches and the rest of my teammates. Just do the little things right; winning battles; winning face-offs; being on the defensive side of pucks. I think when I've done a good job of that the offence has come, so I just need to stick with that."
Holland, who played only eight minutes against Carolina, is tied for third on the team in December scoring.
43-72 – Leafs in the face-off circle against the Hurricanes.
17:14 – Ice-time for Tyler Bozak in his return to the lineup against Carolina.
8 – Points in the last five games for Bozak, who had three assists against the Hurricanes.
8 – Goals from the Toronto defence in the past 12 games. Along with Ranger, Dion Phaneuf scored his fourth marker of the season on Sunday.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 22.3% (5th)
Season: 77.5% (27th)
Quote of the Night
"I wasn't waving the pompoms to be involved with it to start with."
-Randy Carlyle, on the upcoming Winter Classic.
The Leafs face the Red Wings in Wednesday's Winter Classic.