TORONTO – About a day or so after the now long-forgotten lockout was lifted, Randy Carlyle offered what has proven so far to be a prophetic statement.
"Our goaltending is NHL-quality goaltending," he said. "We have some people that can play at a high level in the NHL. And it's not just the goaltenders' responsibility; it's our responsibility as a coaching staff to implement a system where we can be better defensively."
Toronto goaltending has marched quietly and steadily to the near-midway point of this abbreviated season with surprising success. Entering Sunday's action, the highly questioned and previously unproven duo of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens ranked 12th in goals against average (2.49) among NHL tandems, rising to fifth-best when it came to save percentage (.920). Longstanding questions in the Leafs crease have rightfully been muted so far – with plenty of credit owing to Carlyle and the team's defensive improvement – the name of a certain Vancouver goaltender uttered only on rare occasion.
"It's still early on to have a cut-and-dry answer," Scrivens said, following a Sunday practice at MasterCard Centre, a home date with the Devils on tap Monday. "Obviously I think we've played well enough to diffuse a lot of those rumours and take some pressure off management and the organization to feel the need to make a move. That being said, a move can still be made at any time. The pressure is by no means is off of James and I. Really, the second half of the season starts right now and we have to be ready to replicate what we've done in the first half."
Central to the Leafs chances of righting a lingering playoff absence will be their ability to replicate said success in the second half. Both goaltenders have proven up to the task through the opening two months.
Grappling hold of the crease early, the 24-year-old Reimer sizzled with a .929 save percentage in his first nine starts, rediscovering the form which had offered so much promise in his rookie year. The club didn't miss a beat when he went down with injury (knee), however, Scrivens seizing the reigns in more than adequate fashion, posting a .933 save percentage in nine games. And while both have had the occasional misfires in their performance, on most nights they've done as asked, offering the team an opportunity for victory. "You look at whether you're giving the team a chance to compete and giving them a chance to win each and every night," Scrivens said. "For the most part, I felt like I've done that and I felt like James has done that. And that's our jobs, that's what is expected out of us and that's what we have to continue doing."
Carlyle's impact and the effort he has coaxed from the group defensively cannot be overstated when it comes to the success of the goaltenders. He does not demand spectacular from either one, only stability and a "chance to win each and every night". He has enforced a stricter and structured defensive model – not to mention an improved penalty kill, now ranked 15th overall – thus reducing high-quality scoring chances against and subsequently easing the burden in goal. His Leafs may give up more shots (31.4/game) than the group a year ago (30.8), but fewer have come from the dangerous areas of the ice, more trending toward the perimeter. Continued improvement in such areas will be essential to Reimer and Scrivens maintaining success moving forward.
"You at look at a good goalie," Scrivens remarked, "and there's no question they've got a good team in front of them. A lot of the credit goes to the guys in front and the new system we've been playing and how well the guys have bought in and executed on the ice.
"There's no question that we're doing a lot of good things on the penalty kill," he continued, "we're playing well in our defensive zone, we're doing good things at both offensive and defensive blue-lines in terms of puck management. A lot of credit goes the guys in front and then obviously we just try and stop the pucks that we're given an opportunity to get in front of."
How Carlyle proceeds with the goaltenders is a question they will surely assume with performance. The locked-in starter prior to injury, Reimer returned to the crease in Long Island on Thursday night, battling with rust en route to 23 saves in a 5-4 overtime win. Scrivens meanwhile, was the sole reason his team even had a chance against Montreal last week at home, stopping 26 of 28 shots through two periods before the Canadiens raced ahead for victory in the third.
The Leafs need one, but more likely both, to continue their sturdy performance in the looming second half.
"We both want to win, we both want to play," said the 26-year-old Scrivens. "That being said, we're still good friends. I know that if I play well it's going to force him to play well and the better he plays it drives me and it forces me to play even better in order to get back in the net. It's a good healthy competition right now and that's going to drive us individually to play better. And combined, we just have to try and win as many games as possible."