TORONTO – This was what Jonathan Bernier wanted all along. This is what he pined for as the backup in Los Angeles, stuck for years in the shadow of Jonathan Quick. And yet now that he's finally gripped hold of his first No. 1 job in the NHL, the 25-year-old knows that satisfaction is far from being attained.
"Things can change," he said, mindfully. "You can be a No. 1 for 10 years and then next day, you're a backup. My goal is not to be a No.1 for a year or half a season, I want to be a good goalie for a long time, hopefully."
Just 33 starts into that quest – by far the most of his NHL career – Bernier is off to a fine beginning.
Starting for the 13th time in the past 17 games against the Lightning on Tuesday night, Bernier stopped 40 shots, including one of game-saving proportions on Martin St. Louis in the final moments. It was the kind of load-bearing performance that has become more norm than exception for Bernier, who is tied for sixth in the NHL in save percentage and fourth in even-strength save percentage among goaltenders with at least 20 starts.
"When I got traded, I knew that was my chance to prove what I can do in this league," said Bernier, who is 5-1-0 in his last six starts. "My main focus was always to be a No. 1 guy and I've still got a lot to learn, but I think I'm moving towards that."
He and James Reimer traded starts until mid-December before the crease eventually tilted in favour of the Laval, Quebec native. His performance month-to-month has rarely wavered – .933 save percentage in October, .923 in November, .932 in December and .915 so far in January.
"I knew Randy, the type of coach he was," said Bernier of head coach Randy Carlyle, "I knew I had to really battle to earn [the job] which is the good way. You don't want anything for free in life. [But] I didn't really focus on how many games I was playing, I think I was just focusing on getting better every day and every game and it just worked out that I started playing good and he kept me in."
Maybe most notable in his year-long efforts has been his ability to withstand a nightly barrage of shots and chances, a far cry from the Kings, who were a constant amongst the NHL's best defensive teams. In fact, Bernier is facing 11 more shots per start this season with the Leafs (35) than a year ago in Los Angeles.
He sits a sparkling 7-1-2 when challenged with 40 shots or more.
"I think we can still improve as a team," he said honestly of the group's performance. "[We're] still giving up a lot of scoring chances, especially I thought last game wasn't our best one, but we're coming out with wins. I think if we want to be successful in the playoffs – I've been through that – you've really got to bear down defensively and be a good defensive team."
Though the goalie competition has gradually evolved into a one-man job, Bernier understands that he is a long ways from proven as a No. 1 starter in this league. But he also carries a certain degree of pride and quiet confidence knowing that he's accomplished what he set out to do upon landing in Toronto.
"It's not like I said yesterday 'I made it, I'm a No. 1', I think you're just going day by day," he said. "Obviously, I'm happy the way things turned out."