EDMONTON – The Maple Leafs do not have a controversy.
What they own instead, through the first 12 games of the season, is one of the strongest goaltending tandems in the league. "I don't think you could say that we don't have 1-A and 1-B," Randy Carlyle said confidently of his two goaltenders, following practice in Edmonton on Monday afternoon.
Tag-teaming between the pipes in Toronto, Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer have combined to post the fifth-best collective save percentage in the NHL so far this season. Right there alongside potent special teams and a juiced up offence, goaltending has been a primary factor in the Leafs early season success (16 points, tied for first in the Eastern Conference).
"If you don't have goaltending you don't have a chance, you don't have a starting point," said Carlyle, frowning on the daily interest his goaltenders attract. "And every team in the league is looking for the same thing; for their goalies to go in there and give them a chance. In our situation our goalies have been very, very good for us."
The numbers between the two are nearly identical so far.
Bernier (5-4-0) has started seven games and owns a .930 save percentage; .936 at even-strength and .919 when his team is shorthanded. Reimer (3-0-0) has started five of his own and boasts a .933 overall mark; .933 at even-strength and .920 shorthanded.
As a tandem, the duo boast a .928 save percentage, trailing only the hot-starting Avalanche, (10-1-0), Bruins (7-3-0), Sharks (10-1-1) and Canadiens (7-5-0). They've managed such effectiveness in spite of an increasingly heavy strain; the Leafs yield an average of 35 shots per game, falling under the 30-shot plateau in just one game so far.
Working within the tandem concept has been an adjustment for both goaltenders.
Bernier had never started three consecutive games in the NHL prior to joining the Leafs, stuck as the understudy to Jonathan Quick for years in Los Angeles. The 25-year-old has started three in a row twice already this season and says the adjustment is mental above all else.
"It's a whole new mind-set for me," he explained to the Leaf Report.
Rather than gearing up for the one customary start he'd made every couple weeks with the Kings, Bernier has had to prepare himself mentally for the possibility of a string of starts. He hadn't done that since the 2009-10 season, when he was the starting netminder for the AHL's Manchester Monarchs.
"To get that routine back and get that good feeling every night I think that's the hardest part," he said. "I knew coming in this season if I was going to play a few games back-to-back my focus [needed] to be consistent. All year, that's what I'm going to try to work as hard as possible because I kind of lost that."
Bernier, who considers any game where he yields more than two goals to be an off-night, looks to Martin Brodeur as the ultimate example of mental consistency. The Devils' future Hall-of-Famer was previously a regular for 70-plus games each and every season.
Guiding the Leafs to their first playoff berth in nine years in 2013, Reimer faces a different and maybe more difficult circumstance than his Quebec-born counterpart. He was the entrenched No. 1 in Toronto last season, starting 31 of 48 games with a .924 save percentage that ranked eighth at the position. His once-firm hold on the starting job was thrown into question with the acquisition of Bernier.
"I think you want to play consecutive games," he told the Leaf Report. "That's when you feel you can get in a groove and that's when you feel you can play your best. I think that's the ultimate thing. And so when you have two guys it's kind of hard to do that sometimes. It might be a little harder to adjust."
Competition certainly has the tendency to breed improved results, but in Reimer's situation, that may not be the case exactly. His focus, as he explains it, isn't squared so much on competing with Bernier, but rather on his own individual performance.
"You can't think about it," said Reimer of the competition, coming off a 37-save performance against the Penguins on Saturday. "It's just some more, in essence, white noise that you can't let get through.
"You don't run a marathon looking behind you the whole time – you're looking forward," he continued. "And if you feel a guy on your heels do you run a little faster? Maybe. But maybe that's not how you should run anyways ... You can say [the competition will] push you, but at the same time it's more important for you to stick to your game-plan and not worry about it."
Leading the bench in Anaheim for seven seasons, Carlyle has plenty of experience and success with the tandem approach in goal. When he and the Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007, it was actually Ilya Bryzgalov who started the opening four games of the postseason before Jean-Sebastien Giguere took over in Game 5 against the Wild, running the crease the remainder of the way.
"That was the plan in the beginning," Carlyle said of the tandem concept. "We've stated that and we're going to continue to go again with the person who we feel is going to give us the best chance for success on any given night."
When Leafs general manager Dave Nonis swung the trade for Bernier in late June he pledged to have the makings of a strong foundation in goal with a pair of 25-year-olds. "We feel we've got two of the top young goaltenders in the league right now," said Nonis. "Both of them we feel have the potential to be solid No. 1's.
"Both guys have the potential, both of them want it, and that can only make your organization stronger."
So far – it's still early – so good.