By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 17) – Here is a word to the wise, and an encouraging one, for fans of the Maple Leafs: Do not give up on James Reimer.
The upstart netminder that stole the heart of Leafs Nation in the second half of last season will make his first appearance of 2012 when the Ottawa Senators come to town on Tuesday night. A venomous amalgam of second-year malaise; a debilitating head/neck injury that curtailed early momentum and a suddenly-impressive alternate goalie has blighted, to this point, Reimer’s sophomore NHL campaign. Even if he had avoided the collision with Brian Gionta in Montreal on Oct. 22, chances are Reimer would be a shell of last season – it happens to nearly every second-year athlete in pro hockey and is almost always followed by a bounce-back in year three.
Compounding Reimer’s challenge is the most incapacitating element in the NHL since the flu outbreak of 1919 that forced cancellation of the Stanley Cup final between Montreal and Seattle: the concussion pandemic of 2011-12 that has claimed several of the biggest attractions in the sport. Ryan Miller of Buffalo is a prime example of an established, elite goalie that is tentatively meandering through a post-concussion battle, and Miller – unlike Reimer – is well beyond the second-year trial. So, let’s give Optimus Reim a mulligan; a strand of rope, and a chunk of the faith and confidence he unexpectedly earned less than a year ago, when he was kingpin of the Leafs’ enormous following.
AMONG THE PHOTOS I TOOK OF JAMES REIMER (ABOVE) DURING HIS LAST APPEARANCE: A 3-2 LOSS AT WINNIPEG ON NEW YEAR’S EVE. JONAS GUSTAVSSON HAS PLAYED GOAL IN THE ENSUING HALF-DOZEN LEAF GAMES.
Any person with a shred of compassion should be pleased for Jonas Gustavsson, who has claimed a legitimate post in the NHL by bravely and resolutely enduring injury, illness and family heartache that no 27-year-old should bear. The character and will required to get up off the mat after losing both of his parents, and undergoing a trio of cardiac ablations for arrhythmia, ranks as the most inspiring in all of my years around the Maple Leafs. Gustavsson, however, has an inherent flaw that will prevent him, in my estimation, from maintaining No. 1 status in the NHL: he simply yields too many soft goals – any of which can offset an otherwise-splendid performance and obliterate momentum. Like the major league closer that gives up the long ball or the quarterback that bogs down in the red zone, a goalie betrayed by routine shots will never thrive. Moreover, it’s an issue that is largely uncorrectable; innate as the gift of a natural scorer.
That is why Leaf fans should he blatantly hopeful of a Reimer renaissance, for it says here that unless Brian Burke trades for a front-line goalie (and how many of that ilk are available?), his club will go only as far as Optimus Reim can take it. This is not a team that Jonas Gustavsson will boost into the playoffs for the first time in the post-lockout era. Reimer is the best goaltender currently in the Leaf organization and a post-season berth is wholly contingent on a reprisal of his second-half performance from a year ago. Anything less will consign the Leafs to playoff spectator for a seventh consecutive spring.
REIMER HAD A TOUGH NIGHT IN WINNIPEG, COMPLAINING (ABOVE) TO NO AVAIL THAT ANDREW LADD’S GOAL EARLY IN THE SECOND PERIOD HAD BEEN KICKED INTO THE NET.
Is Reimer capable of a rebound? Fundamentally, yes, providing he is mindful of the region beyond his left shoulder, where a dawdling glove leaves him vulnerable to high shots. When aggressively challenging the opposition, however, this becomes a surmountable issue, as it was for much of January to April last season. To reclaim his swagger, Reimer needs to steal a couple of points for the Leafs – something he has yet to accomplish in his sophomore campaign.
He needs the type of performance that has fans at the Air Canada Centre primed to unleash fervor when Andy Frost works up to announcing the game’s first star; the type that silences large, rambunctious crowds in visiting arenas; that emboldens all others wearing blue and white. We saw it repeatedly in the final third of last season, when Reimer provided Leafs their truest interval of big-league goaltending since 2004. A similar stretch is all but mandatory in early-2012.
Unknown to all is whether Reimer can pull it together in the throes of concussion symptoms severe enough to hack off nearly a quarter of his season. While the noticeable aftermath of a head injury may subside, its lingering effects are confounding. Perhaps it’s an ailment that requires the better part of a calendar year to overcome; or maybe it is one that time simply cannot heal, as is frighteningly apparent with Sidney Crosby.
Whatever the case, Toronto’s playoff aspirations this season lay with the caliber of puck-stopping only one man currently in the organization can provide. That’s why fans of the Blue and White must be hopeful of an Optimus Reim revival.
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