TORONTO – The question hangs precariously in the air with no imminent answer in sight.
James Reimer's return appears no closer to fruition as the Leafs' crease continues to wobble in his absence. Ron Wilson was forced to hook his starter for the second consecutive game on Tuesday as the Leafs dropped a 5-1 decision to the Panthers, the first time they've lost two games in a row all season – they were thumped 7-0 by the Bruins on Saturday.
Toronto goaltending currently sits third-worst in the NHL (3.37 goals against average, .888 save percentage), struggles that were clearly on display at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night.
Jose Theodore was spectacular with 38 saves for the visiting Panthers, while the duo of Jonas Gustavsson and Ben Scrivens leaked five goals on 28 shots.
"Their goalie made a number of big saves and unfortunately we didn't get a save and that kind of sunk us," said Wilson, following the Leafs second regulation loss at home this season. "We've got to shore up our goaltending obviously but play the way we did tonight and more often than not, the puck will go in the net."
A dominant final two periods – the Leafs outshot the Panthers 31-14 – yielded little in the way of results, capped by a deflating spurt in the middle frame.
Florida scored twice in a 19-second span on two plays that could hardly be considered scoring chances. A bouncing puck that skipped past Gustavsson behind the Leafs net keyed Marco Sturm for the Panthers second goal with Tomas Kopecky (they led 1-0 after the first) adding another seconds later, his shot innocently deflecting off the stick of John-Michael Liles and past the glove of the 26-year-old Swede. Scrivens took over from that point, but fared no better in relief, yielding two goals on just seven shots.
"We've got to support our goalies better and if it's a rough time for them, play better defensively," continued Wilson. "But sometimes that's hard to do if you don't give up any chances and a puck's in the net and it's not a scoring chance – there's not much you can do."
Suddenly exposed is the lack of stability in goal without Reimer, whose return remains shrouded in doubt. The 23-year-old missed his eighth consecutive game on Tuesday (upper-body) and has not been on the ice since Friday. He continues to work out off-ice, but does not look to be anywhere near a return.
"I really don't know," said Wilson. "I can't comment on that because I simply don't know."
The Leafs managed to brush over his absence initially with a high-powered and very timely offence; in the first six games without their number one (4-2-0), the Leafs scored 21 goals (3.5 per game) while still allowing three or more in four of those games. But with the offence suddenly stumbling – despite a number of great chances on Theodore – goaltending, and specifically the absence of Reimer, has magnified into a critical area of focus.
Both goaltenders are fighting the puck – Scrivens was hooked after five goals on 14 shots against Boston – with no obvious option emerging for Thursday's game in St. Louis. Gustavsson was relatively sturdy – albeit with bloated numbers – making five straight starts in place of Reimer (3-2-0), but since Scrivens took over with two consecutive starts in his place – beginning with a 38-save performance in Columbus – his confidence looks to have been rattled yet again.
Wilson indicated that he'd already decided which goaltender would start against the Blues, before adding, "We'll make the decision at practice [Wednesday] or even the next day. I want to see how the goalies play in practice, how they rebound from this and go from there."
The Leafs played their ninth game of the season without Tim Connolly. Connolly was injured (upper-body) early in the first period of Saturday's game against Boston and will miss up to two weeks.
"I kind of felt right away that there was something wrong, but just tried to battle through it," said Connolly, who indicated that the injury was sustained because of a cross-check early in the game. "It was tough to get through the game, but it was a bit worse afterwards when the adrenaline does settle down. You never really want to take yourself out of a game no matter what the situation is."
The 30-year-old missed only one shift, totaling over 16 minutes of ice-time in the loss. It's the second significant injury suffered by the Syracuse native in his brief stint with the Leafs; Connolly missed the first eight games of the regular season with an unrelated shoulder injury.
The parallels to last season are obvious to Nikolai Kulemin. The 25-year-old had just one goal in October a year ago, but broke out for eight in November, finishing the year with a career-high 30. This fall, he's managed just two goals in the opening fifteen games, hoping for a similar explosion this month.
"In the start, it's hard physically sometimes," Kulemin told the Leaf Report. "After you get used to it, play a lot in the games, [you] feel more comfortable on the ice."
Kulemin had just 18 shots through the opening fourteen games, firing a season-high six shots on goal against the Panthers.
"I try to shoot it more," said Kulemin before the game, "but I don't really have a chance to shoot in the game. When I have to shoot, I shoot now."
Luke Schenn returned to the lineup on Tuesday after sitting as a healthy scratch for the game against Boston.
"That was obviously a decision they made to sit me out a game and hopefully it's just a positive experience, you can learn from it, come back stronger and hopefully no looking back," said Schenn.
Despite a minus-3 rating in 12 minutes and 38 seconds of ice-time against the Panthers, the 22-year-old appeared much more at ease.
"I thought Luke was much better," said Wilson. "A lot more energized; he had seven hits and a lot of them were really hard ones that the other guy paid a price. He got victimized on what you'd call a couple of bad goals, but they certainly weren't Luke's fault."