Siegel: Maple Leafs' goalies search for consistency

Jonas Siegel
2/20/2012 11:46:08 PM
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TORONTO – He and Jonathan Boutin flip-flopped all the way through the playoffs that year in the coast.

James Reimer and the 96th overall pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning (2003) joined forces in the spring of 2009 to secure the South Carolina Stingrays third and most recent Kelly Cup, the top prize in the East Coast Hockey League. Boutin actually made more starts than Reimer during the run, but it was the Manitoba native who managed to snare the MVP award, sealing a Game Seven championship victory over the Alaska Aces with 26 saves.

It was perhaps the ultimate form of 'win and you're in'.

"During the run, I didn't play for a couple weeks in the playoffs even," Reimer told on Monday afternoon, "just the way it worked out."

Fast forward three seasons and Reimer is staring at a similar scenario in the NHL, the 23-year-old searching for answers alongside Jonas Gustavsson in a crease that's been increasingly shaky for the slumping Leafs – .867 save percentage combined in the last six – not helped either by a series of wobbly efforts defensively.

Clinging to a playoff berth that's in danger of slipping from their grasp – eighth in the East with losses in five of six – the Leafs need to find some measure of stability between the pipes, be it Reimer or Gustavsson.

The 27-year-old Swede has been unquestionably the more reliable option – notably in January – and will start on Tuesday with the Devils in town.

"Even if they would say to me that I would be a starter it's not like 'Okay, now I'm going to play five games so I can relax in the first game'," Gustavsson explained to of his mindset under the current rotation. "You're always just looking at that opponent you have that night and trying to go out there and battle no matter what's been said before the game.

"You always know if you play good, you're going to get more chances, if not the next game or in the next few games, at least you're going to get a chance. That's how it's always been. Before I came here, as soon as I started playing at a high level where it was a lot of competition, that's how it is, that's how it should be. You shouldn't be feeling like you can do whatever and keep playing, it should be a competition. And that's something I think is going to push me to work even harder."

Any previous uncertainty appeared to settle itself somewhat in January.

Gustavsson won seven of 11 starts to begin the New Year (2.08 goals against average, .926 save percentage), also posting three shutouts along the way. "He's playing well enough that we can ride with him," Ron Wilson said after a win in Long Island on January 24, the final game before the All-Star break. Such a notion unraveled in a hurry  – the first game after the break, in fact  – Gustavsson and the Leafs disintegrating down the stretch of an eventual 5-4 shootout loss in Pittsburgh.

Reimer drew the start a night later in a rematch with the Penguins in Toronto, the embattled netminder posting the first of consecutive shutouts. Inconsistent from that point forward, he and Gustavsson have rotated amidst a wave of ineffective defensive play only standing to accentuate the problem.

"If our team didn't break down, we'd be out of a job pretty quick," Reimer noted in defence of his teammates. "When there's a big breakdown or a breakaway or a two-on-0, five-on-0 whatever the case, you want to be there to make a big save and get your team going or keep them in it.

"Goaltending is a huge part of any team obviously, success or failure. When a team has a subpar game, a goaltender can either steal you a point or even a win."

It can mask flaws and reverberate through an entire lineup, but the way it stands presently, goaltending has cast a cloud of uncertainty over the Leafs' push to the postseason. An answer must present itself in some fashion soon.

"We've just got to support Reims and the they work their way through a tough period," Wilson concluded.

Five Points

1. No stranger to adversity, Gustavsson offered his thoughts on working through a difficult period. "Just because you've had one or two of those games, you can't really go back to the next practice and change everything," he explained. "That's the most important thing in those situations that you don't think too much, you don't try to change too much because then you're going to be in deep trouble, that's what I think. It's all about keep working on what's been successful for you and keep believing what you're doing is the right thing."

2. Post-practice work with goalie coach Francois Allaire was nothing out of the ordinary on Monday. "It's like a golfer working on his swing," Gustavsson said. "If his swing coach can see there's something that he's not doing the way they want, then you try just to correct that. There's no secret drills, it's all about repetition, keep doing the same things."

3. Mikhail Grabovski has gone a season-high nine straight games without a goal, stuck on 18 for the season. The drought is Grabovski's longest since a 12-game spell to begin the 2010-2011 season.

4. Thumped in Vancouver on Saturday, the Leafs were punished for a series of poor decisions and coverage defensively. "Maybe guys are cheating a little bit in the defensive zone to create that offence," Luke Schenn said. "The opposite happens when you cheat offensively, you get scored on defensively and you don't create any offence. You have to do things the right way out there; obviously it comes down to winning your battles down-low, not losing coverage of guys and being aware of what's going on; just comes down to winning those one-on-one battles and competing."
5. Yielding 21 goals against five-on-five in the last five games (4.2 per game), the Leafs have dropped to 28th overall (122 against) in that department.

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