TORONTO – Under the strain of a no. 1 gig in the NHL for the very first time, Jonathan Bernier has learned that it's best to do little with off-nights from the grueling schedule, condensed as it is in an Olympic year.
"I go home and watch TV and just rest," he said with a smile. "But that's what you need to do to be successful. That's what I'm going to do."
And that's precisely what the Maple Leafs need him to do. Outside of the incomparable Phil Kessel, no player means more to Toronto's fortunes down the stretch and into a hopeful postseason run than the 25-year-old between the pipes.
Freed from the shadows of Jonathan Quick, Bernier has shined brilliantly in his first go-around as an NHL starter, minding the fort on most nights in front of a poor defensive team. The Laval, Quebec native ranks sixth in save percentage amongst goaltenders with at least 30 starts, this despite facing more shots than anyone but Mike Smith – Smith, of course, making nine more starts.
Whether Bernier has the juice to maintain such a performance down the stretch could very well determine his team's fate. Though they've scored in droves all year, the Leafs have also struggled badly to defend, requiring Bernier to fend off a barrage of 35, 40 and sometimes 50 shots against on many nights.
His efforts have rarely wavered in spite of the workload. Bernier's best month in terms of save percentage was October when he posted a sterling .933 mark, his worst coming more recently in January with a still respectable .916 showing.
The Leafs – who allow a league-high of more than 36 shots per game – would not be on the firm ground of a playoff spot currently without such feats.
"I knew my biggest challenge this year was going to be consistency," he told the Leaf Report, "to be good every night and hopefully, once in a while, be great and steal a few games for your team. That's my main goal, to be good every night and give a chance to my team to win. But that's hard. When you haven't played that much (as a starter) you feel tired a lot more than you are usually so it's more like a grind mentally to push yourself to be better every day and work hard in practice.
"Why (Henrik) Lundqvist is known as the best is he's going to be good every night and he's going to be great once in a while. That's how you become the best is consistency. You can have one good year and then you're not going to be the best because you've got to prove it over and over. That's what makes you a great player."
Not since the 2009-10 season has Bernier played anywhere near this many games (40 starts) and that was when he was a Manchester Monarch in the AHL. His performance then was eye-catching. Then just 21, he posted a league-leading .936 save percentage during the regular season – Nathan Lawson was second at .922 – raising his level even higher in the playoffs with a .939 mark that again topped every one of his Calder Cup counterparts.
All of which makes his performance this season if not surprising then reaffirming of the promise he showed early and often as a highly-touted prospect in the Kings organization.
The question lingering now is whether he can continue to perform down the stretch or whether the strain of a sometimes painstaking load in Toronto will prove too much to bear. It will be worthwhile testing ground for the 11th pick in the '06 draft and could ultimately decide the Leafs fate this season. They remain a bad defensive team even with his heroics, ranking fifth to last in goals against. If he falters there's every chance they too falter as well (James Reimer lurks in the background in that case as a proven, if not unused, alternative).
Bernier was on point in the final lead-up to the 18-day Olympic stoppage, but was scuffed up in his first two starts afterward, yielding nine goals combined in overtime losses to the Islanders and Canadiens. Off-nights like that will challenge the Leafs playoff push. They've required great goaltending to get to this point and will need more of the same in the final 20 games, the bulk of which Bernier is in line to start.
Bernier for his part is doing what he can to remain sharp in the final leg of the regular season race.
Earlier this season he noted that perhaps the greatest challenge of reassuming control of no. 1 duties is the mental focus required each and every night through an exhausting schedule, not simply the physical wear and tear associated with the job.
"It's all about rest and feeling good about yourself and making sure you eat properly, you rest, you sleep good," he said. "Those are the things that are going to get you through a full season to be mentally sharp."
Ambition is certainly high for Bernier. He wants to be great and the Leafs, at this stage, need him to be great, gambled when they acquired him that he could be great.
"I don't want to look too far ahead," he said, "but my goal is to be the best I can be. It's going to take a few years to get that name (for myself) … but right now I'm going day by day and enjoying to play games. That's what I've been waiting for and it feels good."