ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Jonathan Bernier sported retro-coloured pads and a navy Maple Leafs toque atop his mask in a blustery Winter Classic at the Big House.
“It was actually keeping me warm,” said Bernier with a sly grin of the extra insulation, “and I thought it looked good.”
The 25-year-old remained a fiery difference-maker yet again for the Leafs on Wednesday afternoon. Bernier stopped 41 of 43 Detroit shots in front of 105,591 spectators at Michigan Stadium as his club won three straight for the first time since late October, edging the Red Wings 3-2 in the shootout.
Bernier has, for the moment at least, snatched control of the Toronto crease.
On Wednesday he became the first Leaf goaltender to start four straight all season and owns a scorching .950 save percentage in his past six games.
“We look at it and say that Jonathan Bernier has come in and given us a chance and given us an opportunity in games and that's really what we're looking for,” Randy Carlyle said after the historic tilt in front of a record crowd at the football stadium in Ann Arbor.
“[But] we feel that James Reimer has done the same. Right now, [Jonathan] is on a little bit of a run and as long as he can continue to provide us with the level of goaltending that he has it would be foolish for us to look another direction.”
Facing at least 40 shots for the seventh time already this season, Bernier had another busy, yet effective night. He may have been at his best in a windy second frame.
With his team under siege and already trailing 1-0 on a goal from Daniel Alfredsson, Bernier first turned aside Daniel Cleary on a partial breakaway before stopping the scary duo of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg moments later.
“If we would've went down 2-0 there it would've been very difficult to come back given the condition of the ice,” said Joffrey Lupul afterward.
The Leafs rallied on the efforts of their goaltender shortly after with James van Riemsdyk ending an eight-game dry spell with his 15th this season before the visitors moved ahead on a nifty redirection from Tyler Bozak. Detroit tied it with less than seven minutes to go in the final period before Toronto raked in the extra point in the shootout.
The victory pushed the Leafs to 47 points on the year, one up on their Original Six rival. They have now registered at least a point in six consecutive games, turning the corner somewhat from a miserable stretch that began at the outset of November.
As for Bernier, he continued what's been an excellent first half for Toronto's goaltending.
To proclaim him the Leafs No. 1 though after a strong string of starts would be unwise, especially in light of the stability Reimer has offered with a .924 save percentage in 18 starts this season.
Carlyle is sure to continue rotating between the two while riding the hot hand when it emerges.
“I know that there has been this constant ‘Who's number one?' question hovering over our hockey club,” said Carlyle. “I know you're tired of hearing it and you think I'm full of it when I say 1A and 1B, but that's what I believe in and I think competition for the position allows people to compete and bring the best out of them.”
1. Road to the Winter Classic Ends
Carlyle was famously opposed to the all-encompassing presence of HBO en route to Wednesday's Winter Classic and couldn't have been happier to have it conclude on this day.
“It's been a long three weeks, that's for sure,” he said, still sporting a ball cap atop his suit. “With what's gone on with our hockey club, the way we've played, the inconsistencies that we've played to and the microscope that we've been under you get to see a lot of it. There's a lot of things that are going on inside that are hard to deal with it when you're always constantly under a camera or a microphone.”
Just as those cameras from the 24/7 series exit, the Leafs have ever-so-subtly turned a corner, picking up points in six consecutive games. They have just two regulation wins though in the past 21 games – winning five shootouts – and were outshot 43-26 by the Red Wings on Wednesday.
“The general feeling in the room was that we got through a really, really tough stretch in December with a lot of travel and a lot of games in a short period of time,” said Lupul. “And [we] probably didn't have the results we would've liked, but we kind of kept our head above water there and now we're getting some bodies back in the lineup, getting more healthy and hopefully this is the turning point for us where we can kind of put something together.”
2. Wintery Conditions
To combat the freezing of his blocker in the chilly conditions, Bernier employed unusual measures. “The trainer would give me hot-packs and I would just put [the blocker] in my pants as well, try to keep it warm.”
Snow fell vigorously on the ice surface at the Big House from start to finish, a crew with shovels clearing the surface frequently. “I was watching them shovel it,” said Dion Phaneuf, who notched a pair of assists a day after signing a seven-year extension, “and you could see the piles by the time they done there it was this high coming off the ice [raises hand about a foot off the ground].
“The ice conditions were really good,” he continued. “The ice was real hard, but the snow on it made it difficult to keep the puck flat.”
“Everyone's hands and feet were a little cold,” added Lupul, “but other than that it wasn't too bad.”
3. Gleason Acquisition
In looking to upgrade their defence on Wednesday, the Leafs swapped a player/contract in John-Michael Liles who didn't fit under Carlyle for one in Tim Gleason who promises to gain at least a more consistent look.
“The decision was made to find a player that we felt was going to fit into our back-end more so than what [Liles] was,” said Carlyle.
Like Liles, the 30-year-old Gleason has two years remaining on his contract after this season, carrying a slightly higher cap hit of $4 million annually ($3.875 for Liles).
Describing the six-foot, 217-pound Gleason as “very competitive”, Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis said that the new addition would have to earn his ice. “It changes the look of our back end a little bit and I think it gives Randy some more options in terms of pairings,” said Nonis.
“We just want him to make a contribution,” Carlyle said of Gleason, whose game strays toward the defensive side of things. “And his contribution won't be expected to be a power-play guy, it won't be expected to be an offensive guy, but a big strong guy that can move the puck.”
Gleason, a left-handed shot, figures to be in a fight for opportunity on the Leafs third pair, battling the likes of Paul Ranger and Mark Fraser for a chance alongside 19-year-old Morgan Rielly.
4. Bozak's Hot Streak
Though about a month passed in between – he missed 12 games with an oblique injury – Tyler Bozak continues to thrive amid a six-game point streak. Bozak, who scored in regulation and added the shootout winner, has tallied two goals and seven assists in that span.
The 27-year-old played nearly 24 minutes against the Red Wings and won 14 of 24 draws.
“He's a reliable player,” said Carlyle. “And if we had a model for the younger players to follow, it would be Tyler Bozak as far as the confident player, not a big guy but he gets in the way, he gets inside, he wins his share of one-on-one battles, very strong in the faceoff circle, and he's got the hockey sense.”
5. Phaneuf Leadership Style
Phaneuf was named the 18th Toronto captain at the just-ripe age of 25. Inked to a seven-year extension with the club three and a half years later, Carlyle believes time and experience has allowed Phaneuf to mature into the burdensome duties he assumes for the Leafs.
“Dion was put in a situation at a very young age to be the captain of an Original Six team in a very intense market,” said Carlyle, shortly after the Phaneuf extension was officially announced. “I think Dion has softened his approach – not only the way he brings himself to the rink day in, day out – but I think to his teammates, to everybody around him, I think he's become much more accommodating. I think it's a sign of maturity.
“We all know the captaincy for an NHL team is a letter that you wear proudly, but when your team is not having success it becomes a pretty big item on your chest. People look to you as being the leader and positively or negatively – depending on if it goes well or not going well – you can get ripped apart for it or accolades for it. Those are the things that take place and I think as a young player it takes some maturing, not only just from a hockey player standpoint, but from the expectations that are put on you.”
Matched up against Pavel Datsyuk and the Red Wings top line, the 28-year-old played nearly 28 minutes in the Winter Classic, notching his 12th and 13th assists this season.
Bonus Point – U.S. Olympic Duties
Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk were named to the American Olympic team following Wednesday's game. It will be the second go-around at the games for Kessel – who will also be joined there by his sister Amanda, representing the U.S. women – and the first for the 24-year-old van Riemsdyk.
.950 – Save percentage for Jonathan Bernier over the past six games.
4-0-2 – Record for the Leafs during a six-game point streak.
9 – Points for Tyler Bozak during a six-game point streak.
4 – Consecutive starts for Jonathan Bernier, the first time either he or James Reimer have started four straight all season.
2 – Goals for James van Riemsdyk in the past 12 games. JVR snapped an eight-game drought with 15th this season against the Red Wings.
28:24 – Ice-time for Dion Phaneuf on Wednesday, a game-high.
38 – Face-offs for Jay McClement against the Red Wings, the 30-year-old winning 45 per cent of the time.
1-6-4 – Record for the Leafs in their past 11 road games.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 22% (6th)
Season: 78.1% (27th)
Quote of the Night
“I was born and raised in Sudbury and spent 18 years in Winnipeg, so I know a little bit about cold weather.
- Randy Carlyle, following Wednesday's blustery Winter Classic.
The Leafs return home to host the Rangers on Saturday.