OTTAWA – James Reimer told the Leafs he would come back from the All-Star break a different goaltender.
The 23-year-old has done exactly that.
Reimer posted his second consecutive shutout with a 49-save performance on Saturday night, backstopping the Leafs to 5-0 thumping over the Senators at ScotiaBank Place. The Manitoba native is making good on his bid to reclaim the starter's job from Jonas Gustavsson after struggling in December (3-4-3, 3.23 goals against average, .895 save percentage) following a return from a six-week bout of concussion-like symptoms.
"I didn't feel like I was playing my best hockey," Reimer said of his performance before the New Year. "It felt like I was trying and playing alright, but things weren't going my way and I really wanted to step it up a bit. The only way I know how is to work hard and do what I think is right, so I obviously wanted to go home and get in a little better shape and do what I could there."
Returning to Maple Ridge, British Columbia – a place where he often spends his summers – Reimer trained vigourously right through the All-Star break, intent on rediscovering the form which allowed him to snatch hold of the Leafs crease last season. A sturdy 25-save effort against the Penguins on Wednesday was followed by a busy night against the Senators on Saturday.
"He played very well, very focused and that was the challenge for him," Ron Wilson said, following the Leafs fourth win in the last five games (4-0-1). "He was just being basically outplayed by Gustavsson and when he would go in he'd struggle a little bit. Now he looks like he's found his game. He told us that after the All-Star break he'd be an entirely different goalie and so far he has been."
The eighth-place Leafs moved to within one point of the Senators – with three games in hand – by taking the most recent clash of the division rivals.
1. Reimer had to circle back to his days in the East Coast League for the last occurrence of back-to-back shutouts. Shipped from Reading to South Carolina, the Manitoba native had quite the start to his brief Stingrays career. "I actually let in four goals in the first period that I played when I got traded there and then the last two periods and the two games after that were shutouts," he said. "That was fun to be apart of, too."
2. Skidding recently, the Leafs top line got back on track with a combined eight points against the Senators, led by a goal and a pair of assists from Phil Kessel. "When Phil's moving his feet and flying like that it opens up a lot of ice for everyone," Joffrey Lupul said. "I think it's got to feel good for him to get back on track as it does for me. But again, he's the key guy. He's tough to contain out there. When he's playing like that it gives the rest of us a lot of time." Lupul and Kessel had combined for just three goals in the previous 10 games, their first extended slump of the season. Along with Tyler Bozak (one goal and two assists), the line was a constant threat in transition. "If we play that same way, that rush-style, driving the net, if we play that way every night more often than not we're going to have success," Lupul concluded.
3. Lupul established a new career-high for points (54) with a pair of assists, jumping into a tie for fifth in the NHL scoring race with Kessel. "The break was key for me," Lupul said, an All-Star for the first time this season. "I was starting to get a little worn down I thought and to have a nice little break and come back refocused [was important]. This is the fun time of year, this is when you want to play your best hockey so hopefully for myself and our line our best hockey is still to come."
4. The Leafs have now posted five shutouts in the new year, having allowed just 26 goals in 14 games (1.86 per game) with a real improved attention to detail as a five-man unit in the defensive zone. "Playing defence as a group of five well is an important piece of the puzzle," Cody Franson said before the game. "In order to get into the playoffs and go deep from there it's very important to be solid five-on-five and good in your own zone." Struggling for offence, the Senators threw a lot of shots at Reimer, but most were from the outside.
5. Perfection hit the 14-game mark for the Leaf penalty kill (22-22), going three-for-three against the Senators. "We're pretty confident on the bench when we have to go out for the kill," Wilson said. "It's an entirely different feeling now if we do take a penalty." The Leafs have yet to allow a powerplay goal in the new year.
The Leafs got three goals from their defence with Franson, Dion Phaneuf, and Luke Schenn all finding the scoresheet…With eight goals and 30 points, Phaneuf has matched the totals he set in 66 games last season…Mikhail Grabovski extended his point-streak to five games (10 points) with an assist on Franson's fourth of the season…Mike Komisarek sat as a healthy scratch for the second consecutive game. "Obviously, the situation's not ideal," he said. "But there's two ways you could react; you could hang your head and pout, be an energy suck in the room and around the guys, be negative energy or you could try to work your way back in and make sure that you're ready to go when the opportunity comes."…The Leaf had two powerplay goals in five chances, breaking out from a slump which saw them post just two goals in the previous nine games…John-Michael Liles logged a shade under 19 minutes in his second game back from injury. "John-Michael stabilizes things," Wilson said before the game. "He moves the puck really well, gets the offence going and is part of the offence, as well as he's one of our better shot-blockers too in five-on-five situations. The big thing we think though that John-Michael will help will be our powerplay in terms of getting opportunities. That's an area that has slipped on us over the last couple of weeks and we've got to get it back."… Ottawa had taken three of the previous four meetings with the Leafs... Reimer's 49 saves were a Leaf record in a shutout.