TORONTO – If ever so unlikely in the background the footsteps are growing in volume.
Winless and showing some rust in three starts off a six-week absence, James Reimer is being pushed by the Swede who was seemingly kicked to the curb a few weeks back. Jonas Gustavsson has won five of his last six starts with numbers – 2.30 goals against average, .930 save percentage – that suggest progress for a goalie in the midst of his third NHL season. The Leafs suggested the need for competition in the crease before the season. Suddenly they've got it.
"I guess that's up to other people to talk about," Gustavsson told the Leaf Report unassumingly, before expanding on the prospect of internal competition.
"That's what we want," he said. "You want competition. People have to be on their toes all the time. That's what makes a winning team I think. For the defencemen, the forwards, whoever it is, if you're always on your toes in the practice and the games, that means you're going to improve and then that's just going to make the team better."
The turnaround in Gustavsson's season (9-5-0, 3.13, .901) has been dramatic.
Practically forgotten in early November, Gustavsson was awkwardly passed over by 25-year-old rookie Ben Scrivens – despite winning three of his first five starts in place of the injured Reimer in late October – who started six of seven games to begin the season's second month. A rough patch from Scrivens reopened the door for Gustavsson, who has proceeded to barrel through with five wins in six starts, including a terrific 30-save effort at Madison Square Garden last week.
"I want to be the guy that just can keep getting better," Gustavsson said. "But of course, it's been good. It's been a good month, lot of wins. And I think that's what's most important.
"The guys have been helping me out too a lot, playing good in front of me – scoring a lot of goals – so that helps too."
Goal support was a problem for Gustavsson in the past, a subtle issue that lingered in his struggles a year ago.
Last season, his teammates scored a minuscule 2.23 goals in his starts, a number that has jumped considerably to 3.85 this season. Absent the worries a lack of offence entails, Gustavsson has sharpened his game, allowing his teammates to pursue a more confident game in front of him.
Conversely, it's Reimer endeavouring to find the form of a quick start (4-0-1), after an 18-game absence with concussion-like symptoms. The 23-year-old is undergoing what amounts to a second training camp, struggling in three starts since returning with a 3.62 goals against average and .864 save percentage.
"You're hoping it's not like that," Reimer said, "but you can't replicate games, especially when you're out for so long and not doing anything for so long. If you're out and you're working out and you're keeping active and stuff, it's a different story. But when all you can do to fix the injury is do nothing, you get out of the loop a little bit."
There's no debate about the number one netminder for the long haul; Reimer remains that guy. But he needs game action to rediscover the form he showed last season and again early this fall.
"That's kind of the thinking," Wilson agreed. Where it gets tricky is in the standings. The Eastern Conference is a crowded house that grows more congested by the day. The Leafs can't afford a lengthy slip and unlikely as it may be, Gustavsson might be the best bet in the short term.
"I've just been trying to focus real hard and work on my game and work on the technique of goaltending," Reimer said. "Just try to dive back into it as quick as possible and these last couple games have been exactly that. I feel like I'm getting more and more comfortable. It is kind of like a little bit of another training camp. I'm feeling pretty good and pretty confident right now."
Both easy-going personalities, the two goaltenders get along well despite the competition which quietly brews between them.
"I want to be ready when I get the chance to play," Gustavsson said. "Reims, he helps me a lot too. We help and we push each other and I think so far it's been working good.
"It's just 30 games into the season so we've got a long way to go. Right now we're still in a playoff spot. The only thing that matters for me, that's if we're up there at the end of the year. No matter if I play 15 games or 45 games, whatever I play, as long as we get there, that's something I would like to be part of."