TORONTO – Before his unlikely heroics on this night, James Reimer wondered whether he had played his final game in a Maple Leafs uniform.
And then he had an odd feeling as he left his home in the greater Toronto area on Thursday afternoon, a feeling that he was going to play that night against the Bruins – a game that Jonathan Bernier was to start. He told his wife April as much. “I didn't know why,” he said afterward. “Sometimes you just get those feelings.”
His premonition proved on point. Reimer stepped in for the injured Bernier on Thursday night and helped the Leafs keep their slim playoff hopes alive with a 4-3 overtime win – their second straight against Boston.
“He gave us a chance,” said head coach Randy Carlyle afterward. “And good for him. We needed that and he needed that. It's great.”
It was the second time in less than a month that Reimer came to the rescue for the Leafs.
Back in mid-March, he stepped in for Bernier at the Staples Center in Los Angeles and delivered a perfect 31-save performance in what seemed then to be a defining win. But he struggled mightily in the days that followed – .871 save percentage in five starts – a cloud of negativity building as the losses piled for both him and the team.
Pulled 10 minutes into a Mar. 23 start in Jersey, his career as a Leaf appeared over. The former No. 1 had become the scapegoat what for ailed the sinking Leafs – his obvious struggles notwithstanding.
“I was just focusing on playing the best I can for my teammates and trying to grind out a win,” he said of relief duty against Boston, stopping 10 of 11 shots. “Obviously those are thoughts that kind of go through your mind, but you can't be thinking about that when you've got Chara standing in front of you.”
He hopped off the bench and into the net with less than 12 minutes left in the final frame and the Leafs up a goal at 3-2, another third period lead hanging on by a thread. Boston had a power-play too, Paul Ranger punished from shoving Patrice Bergeron into Bernier and thus injuring the 25-year-old netminder.
Cold, save for a few stretches in front of the Toronto bench, Reimer jumped in and stopped all three Bruins shots with the man advantage. Bergeron, an infamous nemesis, snuck one by to knot the score at three, but from there Reimer held strong, keeping his team's playoff hopes alive until Nazem Kadri won it in overtime.
“He's the first guy that everyone seems to hop on when our team doesn't do so well,” Kadri said of finger-pointing in Reimer's direction last month. “At that point when we were losing the team in front of him just couldn't bring it together and figure things out and obviously the goalie's left out there to dry by himself. We felt bad. Now it's about time we have his back and step up to the plate.”
Cast aside countless times in his Toronto tenure, Reimer might have an opportunity to salvage some good and redeem himself in what are likely his final days as a Leaf. He may just be the guy – with Bernier's status in question – the Leafs have to lean on one last time as they fight for playoff hopes that remain thin even after Thursday's timely win.
Toronto remains a point back of Columbus – who also won Thursday and holds two games in hand – with just four games left.
“I'm going to try and go in there and just give the guys a chance,” he said. “I've got belief in this team. I know we've got the passion and the desire to get it done. We're going to pull together and give it all we got.”
1. Biggest Goal
Kadri played the fewest minutes of his season Thursday, but scored what was easily the biggest goal.
The 23-year-old deposited a Cody Franson rebound beyond Bruins backup Chad Johnson. “That was unbelievable,” he said of his 19th marker this season. “It's probably one of the bigger goals of the year that we've scored. We needed it. That was a good Boston team that is relentless. We knew that coming in we weren't safe with a one or two-goal lead; that we had to keep fighting to the end and that's exactly what happened.”
Dropped to the fourth line against Boston, Kadri played alongside Jerry D'Amigo and a rotating cast of wingers. He finished the night with 11 minutes and 40 seconds, given an opportunity on the power-play in overtime.
“Obviously I don't control that sort of thing,” Kadri said of his ice-time, which has dipped over the past couple weeks. “It's out of my control and I just worry about trying to bring everything I can for the team every single day, no matter if I'm on the first line or fourth line, it doesn't matter to me. I'm going to still play my game and try and contribute as much as possible.”
Carlyle explained Kadri's decreasing opportunity prior to the game.
“We felt that Nazzie wasn't moving his feet and he wasn't playing the north-south game, he was playing more of the same east-west game and he was getting caught a lot by back-side pressure,” Carlyle said. “We've talked to him about it. We've had discussions about it. He's got to be stronger down-low.”
Bernier, who missed the aforementioned five games in March with a groin injury, put no weight on his left leg as he was helped off the ice in front of a stunned ACC crowd. Labeled a lower-body injury – Carlyle wouldn't say if it was a re-aggravation of the groin issue – he was due to go for an MRI as soon as possible.
Seeing his crease counterpart hunched on one knee in the crease, Reimer knew something was wrong and figured he'd be going in.
“I know what it's like to get hurt and you kind of know the body language of a goalie,” Reimer said. “I tried to hop over the bench as soon as possible and start getting warmed up. Obviously you're hoping that he's going to be alright and that he can stay in there because he was doing a heck of a job for us, but obviously wasn't the case. I just tried to do my best and hopefully he can get back soon.”
3. Freeze Catchphrase
It was déjà vu of sorts for the Leafs in the final period as the Bruins raced all the way back from a 3-1 lead, scoring twice on goals from Milan Lucic and Bergeron. Under siege for the better part of the frame – they were being outshot 10-1 at one point – Toronto was just hanging on for life – much like Game 7 last spring.
Carlyle told his club – which has gone into “freeze mode” on many occasions – to breathe. “That's been our catchphrase now because you can't do anything if you don't breathe. And that's what's happened to our hockey club is when we're freezing we're paralyzed,” he explained, before repeating what would seem to have been his advice. “‘Just breathe. Just breathe. Take it easy. Breathe. We'll get through it. Do the things that you're accustomed to doing. Believe in the system. Commit to it and just breathe. Relax.'”
4. Top Line
Scorching in the opening months of 2014, Toronto's top line had cooled considerably coming into Thursday's game, specifically their two top guns, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk.
Kessel had only four goals and 10 points in the previous 16 games, van Riemsdyk totaling five and eight in that same span. Both, along with Tyler Bozak, came alive against the Bruins.
Kessel initiated a pair of goals from the line, firing a pass off the midsection of Bozak for the Leafs second goal and then finding van Riemsdyk in front of Johnson for the third marker.
The latter was the 30th goal of the season for the 24-year-old van Riemsdyk, the first time he's hit that mark in the NHL. “Obviously it was a nice milestone,” he said afterward.
As to what's ailed the Leafs top pair, fatigue might be one factor – along with the subsequent bumps and bruises. Both Kessel and van Riemsdyk actually saw their ice-time increase after their Olympic experience with Team USA to nearly 22 minutes per game in March.
Carlyle, however, saw the struggles of the man advantage as one reason for their slowdown. “Obviously the power-play is a big part of their opportunity to give us more offence,” he said. “And I think the power-play has been up and down at times for us. Some nights we look real good on it and then some instances within the game it actually has taken energy away from us with our inability to execute on it and not even create scoring chances.”
Empty on Thursday, van Riemsdyk has now gone 22 consecutive games without a single point on the power-play, his last goal coming all the way back on Jan. 30. Kessel has just one power-play point himself in the past 21 games and hasn't scored a power-play goal since Feb. 1.
The duo remains 1-2 in team scoring this season.
5. Still Alive
Of the Leafs still tepid playoff chances, Carlyle wouldn't jump too far ahead after back-to-back wins. “We're alive,” he said, “but there's a lot of things that have to go our way. All we're going to focus on is what we can control and we can control our effort and our commitment to our team game and that's what we're going to focus on.”
Asked if his team needed to run the table in the remaining four games – opposite Winnipeg, Tampa, Florida and Ottawa – Carlyle responded, “I just worry about the next one.”
And that next one comes Saturday against the Jets.
30 – Goals for James van Riemsdyk this season, the first 30-goal campaign of his career.
11:40 – Ice-time for Nazem Kadri, his lowest of the season.
22 – Consecutive games without a power-play point for van Riemsdyk.
2-2-0 – Leafs record versus Boston this season.
20:29 – Ice-time for Troy Bodie, a career-high and the most of any Leaf Thursday save for Kessel.
79 – Points for Kessel this season, now third in league scoring.
10 – Stops for James Reimer in relief of Jonathan Bernier.
5 – Points in the past 13 games for Kadri, third in team scoring with 49 points.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 20.5% (5th)
Season: 78.8% (28th)
Quote of the Night
“We'd like to win, that's for sure. We'd like to win as consistently. Those are models that every organization aspires to.”
-Randy Carlyle, on replicating the Bruins success.
The Leafs host the Jets Saturday in their final home game of the regular season.