WINNIPEG – James Reimer was hoping to reignite the Leafs goaltending competition with a start just outside his hometown of Morweena, Manitoba.
It didn't go as planned.
Reimer allowed two goals on the first four Winnipeg shots, the was pulled for the fifth time this season in an eventual overtime loss to the Jets. Afforded just his fourth start in the past 16 games, the 25-year-old was unable to snatch an opportunity toward reclaiming some part of his old no. 1 job, one that has become the tentative property of counterpart Jonathan Bernier.
"Just a tough one," said a sullen Reimer after the 5-4 defeat, which concluded a four-game western road trip.
"I felt my head was in the right place and sometimes things just don't go your way. And when they're not going your way, it's obviously harder mentally, but you have to find a way to stay focused and I felt that I did what I could to stay focused and ready and prepared and it just didn't happen."
Trading starts with Bernier for the opening three months, Reimer's season has gradually slid in the wrong direction, the unquestioned starter a year ago now the unofficial backup.
Though he offered a sturdy start in Colorado earlier this week, that performance failed to translate into any semblance of momentum. Reimer gave up four goals in relief of Bernier in Dallas and was pegged for four more on just 19 shots in Winnipeg.
He now owns an unflattering .870 save percentage in six appearances this month and a .911 mark on the season.
"It's tough when you get in there and you don't have a good game," said Reimer. "It doesn't sit well."
Seven minutes had not yet elapsed before the Jets had struck twice on the embattled netminder. Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler both snuck shots through the body of Reimer, one under the arm and another through the five-hole with the latter a partial power-play rush by the Jets winger and future US Olympian.
"The first two goals were goals that I thought were scored in the middle of the net," said Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle. "Those are tough ones."
It was at that point, down 2-0 on the road, that Carlyle considered pulling the seemingly nervous netminder, only to leave him in for a chance to fight back. And though Reimer managed to rebound in some respect, including a shorthanded stop on Michael Frolik, he was unable to close the door entirely, allowing two more goals in the middle frame.
Bernier stepped in with 13 saves as the Leafs rallied from a 4-1 deficit, only to fall on Dustin Byfuglien's overtime winner. Pocketing five of a possible eight points on the four-game swing, Toronto now sits third in the Atlantic division with 60 points.
1. Kessel in Winnipeg
Winnipeg remains advantageous hunting ground for Phil Kessel.
The 26-year-old knotted the score at 4-4 with less than two minutes to go in regulation, beating Ondrej Pavelec with his 27th goal of the season, an unlikely snipe from just above the goal-line.
He has scored at least a goal in eight-straight games at the MTS Centre, totaling nine in that span.
Kessel has 16 points in the past nine games overall and has vaulted to sixth in league scoring with 54 points in 54 games.
2. Sour Penalty Kill
Yielding two more power-play goals to the Jets, the Toronto penalty kill fell deeper into what's become a year-long hole. The unit has allowed a bloated 13 goals over the past 15 games and sits as the second-worst in the NHL this season (76.8%.)
"We've found ways to leave people uncovered in that critical area," said Carlyle of the penalty kill.
Wheeler scored the first of two power-play goals when he burst wide on Cody Franson, beating Reimer through the five-hole. Bryan Little added the second marker, redirecting a sneaky point pass from Tobias Enstrom.
"We should've had coverage on that and we vacated that area," Carlyle said, noting a need to intercept the pass with a stick in the lane.
3. Potent Power-play
Countering the team's struggles on the penalty kill has been a continually productive power-play, one that ranks as the third-best in the NHL. Dion Phaneuf scored his first power-play goal of the season against the Jets, giving the Leafs at least one mark on the man advantage in eight of the past 11 games.
Cody Franson, second on the team with 16 power-play points, detailed the different components of the top unit, which also includes Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, and how they've functioned to have success.
"Obviously, [Phaneuf's] got a big shot and teams are aware of that and they want to try and take that away. Phil can do so many things with the puck. He's very deceptive. He makes guys think that he's going to pass and he'll have that quick release shot. And it's not a quick release where there's nothing on it – he can rip a puck. There's that shot threat. I take pride in being able to shoot the puck, so hopefully that's something other teams are thinking about when I'm out there. You've got JVR in front. He's one of the best at providing a screen and knocking pucks out of the air. He's a guy that if teams are doing a good job on us, we can just throw it at the net and we know that he's going to be there whacking at rebounds or tipping pucks into goalies and making it tough on them."
Franson calls Bozak the secret facilitator of the unit's success.
"When teams are pressuring really quick, you usually need that quick out to try and get away from the pressure and make them back off and allow us to set up and Bozie's probably the most important piece of that," explained Franson. "He's the guy that controls the middle of the ice and has to make those reads in order to be in the right spot for the guys that are getting the puck in tight situations. He does a great job with that and it allows us to break away from pressure and allow us to set up and do what we want to do out there."
Dishing to Kessel on the game-tying goal, van Riemsdyk notched his 40th point of the season, matching a career-high he set with the Flyers in the 2010-11 season (78 games.) The 24-year-old required 51 games to meet the mark, on pace to set new career-highs in just about every offensive category.
"Ever since I got here I've been given an opportunity to play some key minutes and some key situations," said van Riemsdyk, who also screened Pavelec on the Phaneuf marker. "I've always had the confidence in myself to be able to contribute when I knew I was getting the chance to do that."
Sitting at 20 goals on the year, van Riemsdyk remains one off from matching another career-high (21.)
5. Rare Goal
It had been quite awhile for Tim Gleason.
Gleason scored the third Leaf goal on Saturday, his first since Dec. 18, 2011 in a string of 117 scoreless games. Not relied upon for his offence in any sense, the 30-year-old grinder has just 16 goals in 627 career games.
2-1-1 – Record for the Leafs on four-game road trip.
4 – Starts for James Reimer in the past 16 games.
10-11-5 – Leafs road record this season.
.870 – Save percentage for Reimer in the month of January.
5 – Players on the Toronto roster from the province of Manitoba.
29 – Career points for Phil Kessel in 28 games against the Jets.
40 – Points for James van Riemsdyk this season, matching a career-high.
13 – Power-play goals scored against the Leafs in the past 15 games.
117 – Games without a goal for Tim Gleason, who finally scored Saturday against the Jets.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 22.4% (3rd)
Season: 76.8% (29th)
Quote of the Night
"It's tough when you get in there and you don't have a good game. It doesn't sit well."
-James Reimer, on a rough outing in Winnipeg.
The Leafs host the Lighting on Tuesday night.