DETROIT – Randy Carlyle made sure he was being asked about James Reimer after a one-goal loss in Detroit, pausing before he offered an assessment of the now 26-year-old understudy.
“I thought he was okay, you know, just okay,” said Carlyle with a tone of evident frustration after a 3-2 defeat to the injury-riddled Red Wings squad, the Leafs third in the past four games.
Long a point of stability this season Toronto goaltending has suddenly been thrown into question with Carlyle's remarks, Reimer's performance and the uncertain status of injured no. 1 Jonathan Bernier. Starting in place of Bernier for the second straight game – his fourth consecutive appearance – Reimer allowed three goals on 31 shots, including a game-sealing squeaker under the left arm from Daniel Alfredsson with the Leafs down one in the final minutes of regulation.
It was the kind of stop Bernier has made routinely this season, one that Reimer needed to make at that point in the game and perhaps what soured Carlyle most afterward, Toronto's comeback attempt ultimately falling short.
“So he said I was just okay,” said Reimer, responding to Carlyle's comments. “I thought I played good, but obviously you'd like to make at least one of those saves in the third.”
Such blunt discontent was certainly out of character for Carlyle, who rarely, if ever, singles out any one player, even under the most obvious of circumstances. He was surely agitated by the loss – which saw the Leafs drop further behind Tampa and Montreal in the race for second in the Atlantic – unhappy with the officiating and displeased with a schedule that has his club right back at it Wednesday following 10 long days on the road.
To land Reimer in the cross-hairs though on this night was unfair. His team started slowly opposite a Detroit squad that was missing a slew of key components, including Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. They also suffered breakdowns – Tim Gleason and Paul Ranger both caught flat-footed at the offensive blue-line – that led to Nyquist's two breakaways, while also managing just two goals for the third time in four games (all losses).
Whatever his motivation the remarks won't help a sketchy dynamic between coach and player, one that includes a very public stare-down from Reimer in the first period of a loss to these same Red Wings on Dec. 21.
Further inflaming the matter afterward were the words of Reimer's agent and close friend Ray Petkau, who tweeted, "As is customary in Toronto, when your team plays poor defensively game after game you blame your goalie."
Petkau later said the tweet was not in response to Carlyle's comments.
Doubted and dissected often throughout his Toronto tenure and a restricted free agent to be in the summer of 2014, Reimer will probably use this latest bit of critique as motivation and for the Leafs that may be a good thing.
Bernier remains out for the foreseeable future (more on that in Five Points) leaving Reimer as the go-to guy in goal with key division battles ahead against the Lightning and Canadiens. They need him to regain the form he showed last year and displayed recently in relief against the Kings, a brilliant performance that saw him turn aside all 31 shots he faced in an impressive road win.
“I don't know if I was great and I would like to be great, but I thought I made some good saves when I needed to,” Reimer concluded of his evening. “Unfortunately at the end, especially that third one, you want to come and make a big save for your team there. Unfortunately wasn't the case tonight.”
1. Kessel Cools Off
Cooling off from an unsustainably scorching stretch that saw him post 31 points in a 17-game span, Phil Kessel had seven shots and was a force against the Red Wings, but ultimately went point-less for the fourth straight game and sixth time in the past eight. It's the fifth time this season that the 26-year-old has gone three games or more without a point.
The Leafs are now 6-19-2 on such occasions, two of those wins coming in recent weeks against the Flyers and Kings. Chasing the first 40-goal season of his NHL career – he has 34 currently – Kessel has just one goal in the past eight games.
James van Riemsdyk, who thrived through a recent stretch of 11 goals and 21 points in 17 games, has also cooled some, snapping a seven-game drought with the late marker in Detroit.
The Leafs have leaned heavily on their top line – which also includes Tyler Bozak – for offence, needing the likes of Nazem Kadri (two goals in the past 13 games), Joffrey Lupul (two goals in the past 13), David Clarkson (one in the past 22) and Mason Raymond (the hottest of the group with six in the past 15) to chip in regularly for support. Aside from the odd contribution, however, they've not done so consistently.
Toronto forwards were responsible for only five goals (of 12) during the five-game road trip.
2. Road Trip
A road trip that began with so much promise for the Leafs – following wins in Anaheim and Los Angeles – soured at the end with losses in Washington and Detroit. Toronto finishes the season-long swing with a 2-3-0 mark, not bad, but hardly desirable.
“I wouldn't call it a success,” said Jake Gardiner, who scored for the fourth time in the past six games. “We were thinking three out of five would've been good. Two of five is okay. Games on the road are always tough, something we have to move on from.”
“This game and the last game I don't think that we played as well as we have been playing or can play so that's the negative about it,” said Carlyle. “But we battled back, we didn't quit, we found a way to get two goals tonight and make a game of it. Flush this and get ready for tomorrow.”
The Leafs have played two more games than the Lightning, whom they host Wednesday, and trail them by a point. They sit three back of the Canadiens, whom they face at home on Saturday.
3. Wearing Down?
Second and third among Toronto forwards in ice-time this season and both key members of Team USA at the Sochi Olympics, one might be led to wonder whether Kessel and van Riemsdyk are simply wearing down at this late stage in the season. Both have seen their ice-time rise (slightly) in March as the Leafs trend toward an 11-forward, seven-defender lineup.
Kessel, who had a second period breakaway attempt stopped by Jimmy Howard, actually entered the night as the team-leader in ice-time this month, averaging more than 22 minutes. van Riemsdyk was just a touch behind at nearly 22 himself.
“It's been very demanding,” said Carlyle of the schedule and its effects on playing time. “It's the first time in my career that you go out on a 10-day road trip and you come back and you've got to play back-to-back at home with your first game back. I don't know where that one comes from.”
van Riemsdyk led all Toronto forwards this night with more than 22 minutes, Kessel a shade behind with just under 21, including exactly nine minutes in the third. Carlyle employed eight forwards for most of that final frame as the Leafs looked to even the score.
4. Bernier Status
Nursing a groin injury, Bernier remained off the ice for the fifth consecutive day on Tuesday. He then missed his second straight game in Detroit and will sit out again at home on Wednesday when the Leafs host the Lightning.
With a likely day off for the team on Thursday, his status for the weekend also appears in real doubt with a back-to-back looming against the Canadiens and Devils. That would mean a return next week at the earliest, all of which ups the pressure on Reimer to perform.
“There's always going to be that push to get your people back,” said Carlyle ahead of a tilt against the Red Wings. “Bottom line is the player makes the decision. All we can do is treat him medically, provide him with the right environment, give him the opportunity to test his injury if he's good enough to go and we'll make the decision based upon input from him the player.”
Though he's split each and every back-to-back set between his two goaltenders this season, Carlyle would be hard-pressed to not come back with Reimer on Wednesday even in light of Tuesday's circumstance. Though he's enjoyed a fine season with the Marlies, Drew MacIntyre has yet to start an NHL game.
5. Phaneuf Scare
Upended by the stick of David Legwand in the final frame of Tuesday's affair, Dion Phaneuf remained down on the ice before quickly departing for the Toronto dressing room. He returned to the bench a few moments later, chirping at ref Dan O'Halloran for the non-call on Legwand.
“There's no point in talking about it,” said Phaneuf afterward. “It wasn't a slew foot, it was actually a stick, but it's done and over with.”
The Leafs captain said he had the wind knocked out of him on the play. He still managed to lead his team with more than 23 minutes on this night.
2-3-0 – Leafs record on five-game road trip.
1 – Goals for Phil Kessel in the past eight games.
208 – Man games lost to injury for Toronto this season, a pittance compared to the 322 lost by Detroit, who were without the likes of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Stephen Weiss, and Darren Helm on Tuesday night.
6-19-2 – Leafs record this season when Kessel does not record a point.
4 – Consecutive appearances by James Reimer, doing so for the first time this season.
6 – Consecutive games with a goal by the Toronto defence, four of which have come from Jake Gardiner.
5 – Goals from Toronto forwards on the five-game road trip.
41-48 – Leafs penalty kill over the past 16 games.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 20.7% (5th)
Season: 78.7% (28th)
Quote of the Night I
“I thought he was okay, you know, just okay.”
-Randy Carlyle, on the performance of James Reimer against Detroit.
Quote of the Night II
“So he said I was just okay. I thought I played good, but obviously you'd like to make at least one of those saves in the third.”
-James Reimer, in response to Carlyle's assessment.
Quote of the Night III
“Nobody's feeling sorry for us two months ago when we were missing our top two centres. I didn't see you pointing the question at us then.”
-Randy Carlyle, questioned on the Red Wings injury troubles ahead of Tuesday's game.
The Leafs host the Lightning Wednesday night in a key division battle at the ACC.