TORONTO – His teammates have said all the right things. They've defended him, branded the furious finger-pointing as unfair and claimed that they, not he alone, were responsible for the anxious beginnings of a slide that nearly and may still sweep them out of the playoff picture in the East.
With Jonathan Bernier sidelined for the remainder of the regular season – he has an MCL strain in his left knee and will be out three weeks – the Maple Leafs will turn once more to the beleaguered, doubted and frequently dissected James Reimer in what may be his final days as a Leaf. But their goal of reviving playoff hopes that simmer tepidly with four games left don't rest solely on his 26-year-old shoulders.
"Now it's about time we have his back and step up to the plate," said Nazem Kadri defiantly after a much-needed overtime win against Boston on Thursday night.
That wasn't the case the first time around.
Reimer, who hasn't won a start in more than two and a half months, may have struggled badly in his first rescue attempt for Bernier last month – he posted an .871 save percentage in five starts (all losses) – but he was deserted on an island through much of the wreckage. Of the 18 goals he allowed in relief of his younger counterpart, four came via breakaway, two via odd-man rush and two more from the back-door with little to no opportunity for a save.
"At that point when we were losing the team in front of him just couldn't bring it together and figure things out and obviously the goalie's left out there to dry by himself," Kadri said.
"We didn't play too good as a team," Carl Gunnarsson concurred. "We didn't help him out."
That will have to change, starting Saturday when the Leafs host the Jets in the final regular season game at the ACC this spring. Trailing Detroit and Columbus for the final two wild card positions in the East, their hopes cannot rest on Reimer alone – especially at a point when his confidence has sunk to its lowest at the NHL level.
Improvement isn't likely to magically appear in the team's defensive play – a struggle from start to finish – but the glut of glaring and often fatal mistakes needs to be kept to a minimum. Errors like two-time Rocket Richard winner Steven Stamkos being left alone to score three goals or Gustav Nyquist burning away for a pair of breakaway markers on the same night.
Until recently, Bernier proved an acrobat at masking such deficiencies, piling up eight wins when he faced more than 40 shots in a game this season. Those theatrics, however, have evolved into expectation in Toronto, an unfair burden that became Reimer's to shoulder when Bernier went down with a groin injury last month.
The situation may have bubbled over in Detroit on Mar. 18. It was after that game against the Red Wings – a 3-2 loss for the Leafs – that head coach Randy Carlyle described his struggling goaltender's performance as "okay, just okay", comments that ignited a firestorm back home.
While he later downplayed the remarks – addressing them with Reimer personally a day later – Carlyle's blunt post-game observation seemed to ignore the manner in which Reimer was beat that night – two of the three goals came via the Nyquist breakaway, the third circa the odd-man rush – and thereby singled out the goaltender on a night when he was left alone on far too many occasions.
It was the culmination of doubt which has surrounded Reimer upon his landing in Toronto for good in January 2011.
"It's a non-issue as far as we're concerned," Carlyle said Friday of the since quieted controversy.
Reimer hasn't won a start since Jan. 21. Like his teammates, his level will need to rise substantially from where it's been for the Leafs to have any hope of spicing up a late season race. For all the follies of those around him during the spiral last month, he could not deliver the one or two timely, game-changing saves needed most nights for success. That will have to change in the days ahead.
A restricted free agent and almost certainly playing elsewhere next season, Reimer wondered before Thursday's surprise relief appearance if he had seen his last game as a Leaf. Now comes one final (in all likelihood) opportunity to exit on a positive and perhaps even uplifting note – if he and the Leafs can somehow defy the odds and get into the playoffs.
"Honestly right now there's lots of thoughts swirling in your head about a lot of things," he said ahead of a clash with the Jets, "but now it's just time to stop the puck. It doesn't really matter what transpires after the season or all that white noise per se. All I'm trying to do is just play my best, get those two points (Saturday), and then go on to Florida. Try not to think about other stuff."
"I've had a lot of success in the past and had to carry the load in different scenarios and I've been successful in that. I feel confident."