By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Feb. 3) – I promised myself I wouldn’t write a blog on my 54th birthday but James Reimer has convinced me to put some words together. Besides, the grizzled ol’ Leaf, Tiger Williams, is 59 today and he’d be furious if I slacked off. So, away we go.
Remember all the off-season chatter about Roberto Luongo? Well, it appears the joke was on us. Not only is James Reimer performing superbly in goal for the Maple Leafs, Luongo has quickly wrested away the No. 1 job in Vancouver from Cory Schneider. So much for best laid plans.
Here in T.O., Reimer looks suspiciously like the character that slipped between the pipes two years ago and nearly back-stopped Leafs into the playoffs. Virtually overnight, the Optimus Reim craze enveloped Leaf land, as the unknown Manitoba native single-handedly reduced a 14-point playoff deficit to four points in just more than a month. Ultimately, Leafs could not overcome a pair of lengthy dry spells: 1-8-3 (without Reimer) between Oct. 18 and Nov. 13, then 1-5-1 from Jan. 13-25, in which Reimer played twice.
Perhaps getting cold-cocked by Brian Gionta in the third week of last season was all that prevented Reimer from following up on his splendid rookie effort. A neck injury and concussion-like symptoms dogged him for six weeks and he never fully recovered. When the Leafs – and Reimer – went into a death-spiral in the final third of the campaign, confidence drained in virtually every aspect of the team. Ominous questions prevailed. Maybe Reimer had a fluky stretch in 2010-11 and was not the savior he appeared to be. Could the Leafs – after seven consecutive springs of playoff absence – depend on a goalie with only 71 games of NHL experience? Or, would then-GM Brian Burke try to snatch Luongo from the Lower Mainland?
All of the speculation seems like gibberish right now. Fans at Rogers Arena are chanting “Louuueee!” once again and Optimus Reim is playing as if last season never happened. Though Leafs are a pedestrian 4-4 after eight games this season, Reimer has quelled a lot of apprehension. He is confident; well positioned and maneuvering with cat-like agility. There is nothing to distinguish between his current posture and that of his rookie season.
Had Reimer not performed magnificently, the Leafs would have lost in Buffalo last Tuesday and been routed by the Bruins at Air Canada Centre on Saturday night. Instead, Leafs beat the Sabres in overtime and held their divisional nemesis to a one-goal margin.
JAMES REIMER WAS AGAIN TERRIFIC IN GOAL FOR THE LEAFS ON SATURDAY NIGHT AGAINST BOSTON, PREVENTING A LOP-SIDED DEFEAT AT AIR CANADA CENTRE. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Undoubtedly, many of you are thinking, “Whoa, hold on Berger. We’re only eight games into the season.” I get your point, but I also notice something familiar and tangible about Reimer. I never felt his rookie performance was misleading. He played sound, fundamental goal and didn’t waste a lot of motion or energy. The butterfly technique insisted upon by goaltending coach Francois Allaire – who Reimer continues to swear by – left him vulnerable to high, accurate shots. If he had a weakness, it appeared to be his catching hand, which wasn’t particularly fast.
Better positioning this year under new coach Rick St. Croix has reduced the scoring angle up high and much of Reimer’s glove-side dependability.
More time is needed, but the Leafs No. 1 off-season concern doesn’t appear nearly as daunting. Reimer has been the club’s best player so far. And when your goalie holds that distinction, you have a fighting chance every night.
MISSING PEOPLE: I enjoyed the little spiel Leafs had before Saturday’s game honoring the 60th anniversary of Hockey Night In Canada. But, I felt the club grievously overlooked those that contributed to the show in years gone by. Where, for instance, was Brian McFarlane, the Hall of Fame analyst who worked alongside Bill Hewitt through much of the 1960’s and 70’s on Leaf telecasts? Where was Dave Hodge – predecessor to Ron MacLean – who perfected the role of intermission host between 1971 and 1986? Where was Dick Irvin, the legendary Canadiens broadcaster and Hall of Famer who worked with the late, great Danny Gallivan? How about Jim Robson, original TV voice of the Vancouver Canucks and also in the Hockey Hall? Frank Selke Jr. is another name: intermission host in Montreal and ice-level interviewer in the 60’s. Frank is battling health issues and would not have been able to attend. The irrepressible Bob Cole was in Montreal calling the Habs-Buffalo matinee on CBC (as he will today’s Ottawa at Montreal game). No broadcaster is more familiar to hockey fans from coast to coast in this country.
I love MacLean and Don Cherry, and it’s always a treat to have Doug Gilmour in the house. But, Hockey Night dates further than the middle-1980’s and the living pioneers of our country’s longest-running program should have been on hand at the Air Canada Centre. If they couldn’t attend, for one reason or another, their images and names should have been featured – individually and prominently – on the ACC video board.
FORMER LEAF DOUG GILMOUR READIES TO DROP CEREMONIAL PUCK ON SATURDAY BETWEEN ZDENO CHARA OF THE BRUINS AND CURRENT LEAFS CAPTAIN DION PHANEUF. BESIDE GILMOUR ARE HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA STALWARTS RON MacLEAN AND DON CHERRY. OTHERS WERE MISSING. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
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