LOS ANGELES – Anze Kopitar looked skyward, unable to comprehend how exactly he had been robbed by the Toronto goaltender. Only it wasn't the extended right pad of his old teammate Jonathan Bernier early in the final frame, it was James Reimer, who stole a night that was supposed to belong to the former King.
“Amazing,” said Nazem Kadri of the performance.
Replacing an injured Bernier for the final two periods Thursday night, Reimer helped halt the Kings eight-game win streak with 31 saves, steering the Leafs to their second victory in the California triangle and perhaps biggest all season.
He was brilliant from start (a late one in this case) to finish.
The 25-year-old stopped every shot he faced in 40 busy minutes, including one other rewind-and-replay save on Kopitar in a hectic 17-save second frame. Reimer very nearly had to leave the game himself with an injury (more on that in Five Points), but remained in there to guide the Leafs to their 15th win in the past 22 games (15-4-3) and his first personally in nearly two months.
His memorable right-pad stop on Kopitar's doorstep attempt in that final frame came on a Kings power-play, the save setting the stage for Mason Raymond's eventual game-winner just seven seconds later.
“That was probably the TSN Turning Point where he made that huge save and then we went down on the two-on-one and next thing you know we're up a goal and we were able to hang on for the rest of the game,” Kadri said.
Formerly the Leafs No. 1 in goal, Reimer has endured a trying season, relegated to the undesired backup position for the better part of the 2014 calendar. He was playing in just his third game since late January, making just six starts in the new year.
It was two nights earlier on the second stop through California that he and his teammates were shelled by the Sharks, thumped 6-2 at the SAP Center in San Jose. But here on this night against the Kings, who were gunning to match a franchise record with nine straight wins, they found the means to elude the league's hottest team on the shoulders of an unlikely candidate.
Doubted and dissected constantly throughout his relatively brief NHL career, Reimer had not won a game since Jan. 21. His future with the organization, in light of Bernier's ascendance, remains an open question certain to be settled in the summer.
“I just came in and did my job,” he said. “Every time you get in there it's an opportunity, whether it's a full game or half a game or 10 minutes or whatnot. … It was just `Go in there and take care of business – don't think about the future or the past or anything like that.' You kind of get those thoughts out of your head because they don't help you very much. So I was just trying to focus on what I had to do technically and mentally to stay sharp.”
Coming off a terrific 43-save showing in Anaheim on Monday, Bernier was forced to exit his long-awaited return to the Staples Center after just 20 minutes, pulling himself because of a lower-body injury. It was a disappointing return to say the least.
“He was a little sore before the game,” said head coach Randy Carlyle of Bernier, who did not speak to reporters afterward. “And we just said if you can't go let us know and after the first period he felt he wasn't going to be able to give us what we needed and we made a decision that we'd go with Reimer.”
Randy Carlyle said Bernier had been sore before the game. Bernier told them after the first that he wasn't able to continue. Carlyle was unsure of the extent of the injury (lower-body) and couldn't say whether the team would recall Drew MacIntyre from the Marlies for an upcoming game in Washington.
Carlyle also defended the decision to keep Reimer in the net after getting his bell rung in a collision with Jarret Stoll, arguing that Stoll had actually hit the shoulder area.
The value of owning two quality goaltenders was never more apparent.
1. Concerning Collision
Two nights after James van Riemsdyk remained down on the ice for a moment or two after a thunderous collision with Dion Phaneuf, Reimer experienced a scary collision himself. Racing to corral a loose puck, he was run over by Jarret Stoll, the left leg of the Kings centre catching him square in the head.
“It probably wasn't a very good choice,” said Reimer, “but I went for it, tried to shoot it away and he kind of dove for it and I think his knee or his skate or something just hit me in the head and just kind of rang my bell, that's all.”
Reimer remained down on the ice for a few moments after the collision before consulting with the team's medical staff in the TV timeout. He opted to remain in the game without undergoing concussion tests. It was a questionable decision considering his injury history which includes a relatively recent battle with concussion and neck concerns – concerns which date back to an incident with Montreal captain Brian Gionta.
“Well I don't think he really actually got kicked in the head,” said Carlyle defiantly. “If you really look at the replay, he didn't really strike him in the head. He hit him more in the shoulder area ... And he said he was fine.”
“Obviously there [were] thoughts of coming off,” Reimer said, “but I didn't feel that it really warranted that. Obviously you have a little bit of a headache and stuff like that when you get hit in the head like that, but I felt that I was capable to keep going so I stayed in.”
2. Backup to the Backup
There was definite chatter on the Toronto bench about what might happen in the event that Reimer could not continue with Bernier already sidelined for the night.
“I was sitting beside Bernie and as soon as that happened I told him to take off his pads I might have to throw ‘em on,” said Kadri with a grin.
“It would be somebody, but I don't know who it would be,” said Carlyle, joking that goalie coach Rick St. Croix and former goaltender and assistant coach Scott Gordon both declined. “I asked Colton Orr if he ever played goal and he said no.”
Carl Gunnarsson was Reimer's choice.
“I think his dad was a goalie,” Reimer said.
3. Kadri's Follow-up Campaign
It took 64 games for Kadri to exceed his exploits of last season, registering his career-high 45th point of the year against the Kings before adding a second point later in the evening. While not nearly as explosive productivity-wise as his first full season in the NHL, Kadri has, nonetheless, had a solid follow-up campaign, on pace for more than 20 goals and 50-plus points.
“I think so,” said Kadri, asked if he'd taken the desired step forward in his second full season. “Especially just matching up against a lot of those top lines and going against those top centremen. I'm still a young player who's trying to figure out what my boundaries as a player [are]. I think just matching me up against the best is only going to make me better.”
On this night in L.A, Kadri saw a lot of two former Canadian Olympians, matched up against Mike Richards (2010) and Jeff Carter (2010/2014). He created the Leafs first goal on the power-play, finding a diving Dion Phaneuf in the slot, adding a second point – his 23rd in the past 25 games – on Gunnarsson's second goal of the year.
“The points are going to come,” said Kadri. “I know that. But I want to become a complete player that this team can trust, offensive zone, neutral zone, defensive zone. That's really what I'm striving towards.”
4. Kadri on the Dot
Still only 23, Kadri remains a youthful work in progress, the finer points of the game an ongoing challenge. One such challenge has been the faceoff circle. Kadri is amongst the worst regulars in the league (at about 45 per cent), but feels he's slowly starting to figure it out.
“That's the same as all the young guys, Giroux, Crosby, top centremen in the league, their first couple years they were in the league they were under 50 per cent and that's right where I was hovering,” said Kadri prior to Thursday's game. “I think the last few weeks I've definitely been able to figure out some tendencies and get a lot better in that area.”
Seven-of-17 against the Kings, Kadri has won 51 per cent of his draws over the past five games. He ties the recent improvement to watching film “and just being around the league a little more, knowing what certain centremen are going to do … Just a lot of things I'm working out as we go.”
5. Ranger's Progression
Toronto's seven-defender lineup has worked in large part because of Paul Ranger, who has become the roving option for Carlyle. The 29-year-old has finally found a fit in the defensive role envisioned by the coaching staff at the beginning of the season.
“It's just a will and a determination that I want to be in the lineup,” said Ranger ahead of Thursday's game. “I want to play. I want to be a part of things. Personally, for me, I want to be able to play and I want to play consistently. I want to play to the best of my ability, to continue to rise, to continue to improve my game every day. Just contribute as much as I can.”
Ranger was a healthy scratch in 14 consecutive games before he was reinserted into the lineup as the seventh defender on Feb. 6. He had struggled to that point to establish himself as a viable option on the back-end. Bigger physically than his first go-around in the NHL, he is also being asked to perform with more of a defensive lean, a shift from the offensive player he was for the most part in Tampa.
His game now is dependent on physicality and an aggressive “body-first mentality”.
“It's an adjustment, a process,” he said. “Adjusting to the style of play here has been a challenge, but it is something that I've accepted and taken on that challenge. Now I feel like for me it's almost instinctual now, to play that way.”
Dressing seven against the Kings, no Leaf defender played 20 minutes on Thursday.
35-40 – Toronto penalty kill over the past 14 games.
256 – Shots for Phil Kessel this season, second behind only Alex Ovechkin.
46 – Points for Nazem Kadri this season, a career-high.
19:29 – Ice-time for Dion Phaneuf against the Kings, most among the Toronto defence.
15-4-3 – Leafs record over the past 22 games.
13-22 – Mark for Jay McClement in the faceoff circle on Thursday night.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 21% (3rd)
Season: 78.8% (28th)
Quote of the Night
“I was sitting beside Bernie and as soon as that happened I told him to take off his pads I might have to throw ‘em on.”
- Nazem Kadri, on what the Leafs might do in the event of an injury to James Reimer.
The Leafs continue their five-game road trip in Washington on Sunday afternoon.