TORONTO - Mark Fraser had a sense that James Reimer would not be beaten on this night.
"In games like that," said Fraser, "you need your goalie to be able to make a couple big saves for you, but when James made those couple big saves he came back with a couple more after that.
"He wasn't going to get beat tonight."
Reimer snatched victory on Monday night, perfect and at times, brilliant with 32 saves as the Leafs picked up points for the 13th time in 14 games (9-1-4) while dragging the Devils' winless skid to 10 games. With his third shutout of the year, the 25-year-old also drove his hockey club one step closer to clinching a playoff berth for the first time in nine years. A victory in Washington on Tuesday night coupled with a regulation loss for Winnipeg would seal the deal.
This night, however, was all about Reimer.
His teammates were thoroughly outplayed, outworked and outmuscled from the outset, cobbling together a lonely five shots after 40 minutes. On their eighth shot of the game, with less than seven minutes to go in regulation, Phil Kessel finally broke the scoreless tie, sniping one through Martin Brodeur on a power-play for the eventual winner.
"No one's going to say that we played our best hockey, we were very, very far from it in the first 40," said Fraser, who played a season-high of 23 and a half minutes opposite his former team, "but I still think the feeling in this dressing room was that we were going to win the game. And we were confident because of the way that James was playing."
Ringing up save after save during an evening that saw most of the action tilted in the Toronto end, Reimer made perhaps his finest stop on Patrik Elias midway through the third, stopping the Devils long-time sniper popping through the slot, this just moments before Kessel scored to give the Leafs a lead.
"Tonight was clearly a night for James," Fraser concluded. "He was on fire, there's nothing else to say."
1. Reimer post-deadline frenzy
The focus and pressure on Reimer only intensified when the organization's chase for a goaltender fell through. But since the trade deadline, their incumbent number one has proven a rock. "He has not wavered from his responsibility," Randy Carlyle concurred. Excluding a dud against the Flyers in the first game after the April 3rd deadline, Reimer has stopped a scintillating 151 of 158 shots, which amounts to a .955 save percentage."You just try and hang in there and keep your team in it," he said following his ninth career shutout on Monday. With a .925 save percentage on the year, Reimer is now tied for fifth among goaltenders with at least 20 starts. "There's been a lot of talk about the goaltending situation here," said Fraser, "but when Reims plays like that and [Scrivens] proven to do the same, this group is very confident in what we can do collectively as a team … He's hopefully proving to people what he's capable of doing."
2. Response to season-long winless skid
Since the Leafs dropped five consecutive games in early March, they have lost just once in regulation, garnering 21 of a possible 26 points. "I think it says something for our maturity as the year's gone on because we just stuck to it, stuck to our game and then eventually the results started to come and then we've just been on a pretty good run since then," said Jay McClement prior to the game. In what may prove to be a turning point for the year, in terms of their response to adversity, the Leafs have found ways to win hockey games, including the odd ugly sort. "I think we've gotten more mature at just managing the game, shift to shift, worrying about the little things, taking care of the process and the results seem to be following that," McClement added.
3. Special Teams
The Leaf power-play was all but silent in two opportunities before Kessel extended his goal streak to four games, sniping his 16th of the year and fifth on the man advantage. The Leaf penalty kill, meanwhile, remained supreme - despite a few hiccups, including a post in the third - now a perfect 26-26 in the past seven games and a sizzling 94-101 (93 per cent) in the past 31. "It's not something that happens overnight, but I think we're pretty confident in our group when we do the things we've been doing all year," McClement said of the unit, which ranks third overall at 88 per cent. "It's been a difference-maker for us in a lot of nights."
4. Stunted performance
Matching a season-low for shots with a mere 13 - they beat Boston 3-2 on March 23rd - the Leafs generated the bare minimum offensively against Brodeur and the Devils. Fraser offered the diagnosis following a first period in which his team managed three shots. "We weren't moving our feet enough and eliminating their time and space," he explained of the defensive zone trouble. "We're reacting too slowly and therefore allowing them to be in our zone and not allowing us to transition into our offensive game." Turnovers in all three zones factored into the equation as well. "We didn't really have our work-boots on, we got outcompeted early in the game, but our goaltender stole us a hockey game," Carlyle said. "It's a sign for us as a hockey club and that's what we spoke to, is that you've got to find different ways to manufacture points and we found a way to manufacture points tonight. Did we deserve it? Well our goaltender stole us a hockey game and our power-play scored a big goal for us."
5. Confidence of the group
"We're feeling real good, really confident," Nazem Kadri said before the game. "That's what a string of wins will do to your hockey team. It seems like we've got the type of mentality that we can beat anybody." The Leafs remain fifth in the conference, just three points back of the Bruins and four off the Canadiens with six games to play. A playoff spot could be clinched versus the Capitals on Tuesday, if the Jets were to lose in regulation against Tampa additionally. "Normally when you're having some success you seem to take your foot off the gas pedal a little bit and that's really what we're trying to not do," Kadri continued. "We're trying to be one of the best teams in the league. It's working for us. And we're knocking off some pretty good teams as well; it's not like it's an easy road to the playoffs. We're definitely making a statement to a lot of teams and letting 'em know that we've got a new style."
The Leafs are likely to have Joffrey Lupul back from a concussion in Washington, but will probably be without Carl Gunnarsson for a second straight night. Nursing an undisclosed injury - likely the hip, which has plagued him all season - Gunnarsson took the warmup before deciding he was not fit to play against the Devils. John-Michael Liles stepped into the lineup in his place.
Quote of the Night
"Tonight was clearly a night for James. He was on fire, there's nothing else to say."
-Mark Fraser on James Reimer's performance.
Quote of the Night II
"In games like that, tight games, playoff games, you need your goalie to be able to make a couple big saves for you, but when James made those couple big saves he came back with a couple more after that."
-More from Fraser on Reimer's effort.
3: Shutouts for James Reimer this season.
151-158: Saves to shots for Reimer in the past five games.
5-games: Phil Kessel point streak, totaling six goals and three assists in that span.
4-games: Kessel goal streak, totaling the aforementioned six in that span.
13-7-2: Leafs home record, now with just two more games to play at the Air Canada Centre.
13: Shots for the Leafs on Monday, matching a season-low.
94-101: Leaf penalty kill over the past 31 games, including a 26-26 mark in the last seven games.
9-1-3: Record since a five-game winless streak in early March.
3-0: Record versus the Devils this season.
12: Games without a goal for Clarke MacArthur.
13: Games without a goal for Matt Frattin.
23:28: Mark Fraser, a season-high.
The Leafs head to Washington for a Tuesday visit with the streaking Capitals.