NASHVILLE – Jonathan Bernier has yet to make three consecutive starts in his National Hockey League career. After his first shutout as a member of the Leafs on Thursday evening, the 25-year-old appears well on track to get that chance in the days ahead.
Bernier was an impenetrable wall in the Leafs' crease at Bridgestone Arena, stopping each and every one of the Predators 36 shots in the very same building where he once recorded his first career NHL shutout.
Though still quite early, he is very quickly grappling hold of the no. 1 gig he long desired after years as a backup in Los Angeles.
"I trained really hard in the summer and I wanted to be ready," said Bernier of his opportunity in Toronto, shortly after a 4-0 victory, the Leafs improving to 4-1-0 on the season. "I knew that was my chance to step up and show what I can do. I've been waiting for that moment for a while in L.A."
Like he had been in three games prior (two starts), Bernier kept it quiet in his efforts against the Predators, to whom he now owns an 8-1-0 career record. While his team stumbled through the opening half of Thursday's action – recording their first shot nearly 14 minutes into the game – Bernier held strong and sturdy, keeping the action even until Phil Kessel finally broke the deadlock for the Leafs late in the second frame.
"That's my focus," said Bernier. "Just to keep the team in the game."
Nashville has struggled to score early this season – just six goals after four games – but when they did pose a threat on this night, Bernier turned it down, keeping their attack on a strictly one-and-done basis.
With the action still scoreless early in the middle frame, Bernier stopped all three shots with the Predators swarming on a power-play. Later in the third, he blanked a Seth Jones point-blank attempt with no trouble.
"The one thing that Bernie did tonight," observed Randy Carlyle afterward, "he stood tall in the net and he didn't give up a lot of second opportunities. The puck seemed to hit him in the middle of the chest and he controlled a lot of the rebounds. Good for him."
Bernier has stopped 113 of the 116 shots he's faced thus far as a Leaf (3-1-0), his goals against average now a microscopic 0.85, his save percentage an otherworldly .974, albeit after just four games.
Wisely opting for prudence at this very early stage in the season, Carlyle refused to make any grand proclamations about Bernier and the starting job. One thing is clear though; Bernier will finally start his third consecutive game when the Oilers visit the Air Canada Centre on Saturday.
1. Odd parallel
Though he was unable to recall the night three-plus years later, it was back on Mar. 30, 2010 that Bernier first recorded his NHL shutout, a perfect 34-save showing in his just his sixth NHL start with the Kings.
2. No rebounds
Bernier's ability to limit rebounds and keep a quiet crease has been the most impressive feat for Carlyle thus far. Of that ability, the Leafs netminder said it was a matter of squaring up to the shooter and receiving the puck "in the chest" and thus swallowing the potential for rebounds.
Bernier is working to implement a defined partnership with his new defence core in Toronto, a system that will allow both to work together successfully, "The way I like to play is take away my far side," he explained, "and that makes a big difference because I can take away my short side, which most of the time I'll get in my chest."
These lessons date back to his head coach with the Lewiston MAINEiacs – Clement Jodoin, now an assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens. Under such a system, as Bernier explained, the goaltender would assume responsibility for the strong side of the ice, the defenders keeping check of the weak side. "That was his system defensively," Bernier said of Jodoin. "I just thought it was so smart because that way it makes it look easy and obviously they're shooting more in your chest."
3. Top line attack
Quiet with just four combined points at even-strength in the first four games this season, the Leafs top unit proved opportunistic against the Predators. All three members of the line – Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak – scored in victory, Kessel leading the way with three points, including his second goal of the season.
Outfoxing rookie Seth Jones for a puck deep in the offensive zone, van Riemsdyk delivered a strike to Kessel for the game's first goal, pick-pocketing Pekka Rinne's smother attempt for a wrap-around goal of his own six minutes later. The newly implemented shallow nets proved beneficial to the 23-year-old. "I think if you ask my opinion on them now I think they're a pretty good part of the game," van Riemsdyk grinned. "I think that definitely helped me, able to get out quicker and be able to stuff it because he's pretty quick to get back in the net."
With their depth dinged by injuries and an ongoing suspension to David Clarkson, the Leafs have not surprisingly turned to their top guns on a more substantial basis in the early going this season. The top unit has received the brunt of the increase thus far.
4. Jumping from junior to the NHL
Morgan Rielly picked up his first NHL point – an assist – in victory on Thursday as he continues to transition from junior into the NHL. Perhaps no defender on the Toronto corps understands the difficult jump Rielly is attempting to make better than captain Dion Phaneuf.
Phaneuf leaped from the junior ranks in Red Deer onto the Calgary Flames roster in 2005, totaling what remains a career-high 20 goals and 49 points in his first NHL season.
"The biggest adjustment is you're playing against men," Phaneuf told the Leaf Report of his experience. "The two biggest things that I noticed and I think every young guy that breaks in at a young age notices, it's the speed and strength of the guys. It's not just that they're stronger on the puck, but it's that they're that much quicker with that extra strength. Junior's a great pace, there's lots of pace to junior hockey. But at this level everyone's consistently big, strong and I'm not talking that every guy's 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6, I'm talking every guy is strong on their feet and they know how to protect the puck and they're strong on the puck. That's the biggest thing for young guys jumping in."
Of Rielly, who logged a season-high 19-plus minutes against Nashville, Phaneuf said, "I think he's doing a great job. He's handled it very well and he keeps getting better."
5. NHL Debuts
The Leafs had a pair of 20-year-olds in their lineup on Thursday, both making their NHL debuts against the Predators. A third round selection in 2011, Josh Leivo totaled 9:02 alongside Dave Bolland and Mason Raymond while David Broll, picked 66 spots after Leivo that same year, registered 9:19 alongside Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri. Broll also dropped the gloves with Matt Hendricks in the third and final frame.
Leivo and Broll had combined to play in just 18 regular season games for the Marlies before both got the call to suit up in Music City.
The Leafs have now had five players make their NHL debuts so far this season.
8-1-0 – Jonathan Bernier lifetime mark versus Nashville.
.974 – Save percentage for Bernier after four games.
17-18 or 95 per cent – Toronto penalty kill after five games.
9:02 – Ice-time for Josh Leivo in his NHL debut.
9:19 – Ice-time for David Broll in his NHL debut.
13:40 – Time elapsed before the Leafs registered their first shot on goal (Mason Raymond).
39 – Faceoff percentage for the Leafs, who won just 26 of 66 against the Predators.
29 per cent – Toronto power-play after five games, totaling six goals on 21 opportunities.
1 – Assist for Morgan Rielly, his first NHL point.
Quote of the Night
"Get it in the chest."
-Jonathan Bernier, on limiting rebounds.
Special Teams Capsule
The Leafs host former Marlies coach Dallas Eakins and the Oilers at the ACC on Saturday.