By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Mar. 17) – We can argue, from sunrise to sunset, whether the Maple Leafs have a legitimate No. 1 goalie. For myriad reasons, James Reimer and Ben Scrivens have neither corralled nor embraced the starting role on a club that, until recently, had surpassed expectation. What cannot be argued, however, is that Randy Carlyle continues to impede both netminders with indecision.
When the truncated schedule began two months ago, Reimer was lamely designated Carlyle’s No. 1 man, even though Scrivens – active with the AHL Marlies during the lockout – played the opener in Montreal. Since then, there’s been virtually no rhyme or reason to Carlyle’s goaltending plan.
Reimer appeared to be handling the No. 1 designation quite well with a 5-2 record in seven games before straining his medial-collateral ligament in a 6-2 pounding of Philadelphia, Feb. 11. One of Reimer’s two losses in that stretch would have been an embarrassment to the team had he not performed miraculously, making 35 saves in a 1-0 conquest by the Bruins at Air Canada Centre – Boston thoroughly out-classing the Leafs everywhere but in goal.
Scrivens performed adequately with a 4-4 record during Reimer’s 17-day absence and there was no indication from Carlyle that his goaltending plan would be altered upon Reimer’s return. Nor did Scrivens provide Carlyle justification to alter the plan. Rather, it seemed as if Reimer was hurried back for a road game against the Islanders, Feb. 28.
I wrote at the time – and I maintain – that Carlyle should have played Scrivens at Nassau Coliseum, as Leafs had a three-day break before their next game. Caution has to prevail with knee injuries; goaltenders, in particular, are susceptible to recurrence given their range of movement. Though Leafs edged the Islanders, 5-4, starting Reimer in Uniondale was Carlyle’s first big goaltending error. It created a domino effect that is hampering the club.
THOUGH LEAFS WON THE GAME, RANDY CARLYLE’S DECISION TO START JAMES REIMER ON THE ROAD AGAINST NEW YORK ISLANDERS (ABOVE), FEB. 28, IS STILL HAMPERING THE TEAM. MIKE STOBE GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Reimer is undoubtedly a better goalie than Scrivens, who appears to have graduated from the Roman Cechmanec School of Puck Handling. Each foray beyond the crease is an adventure for the otherwise cocksure netminder. By all indication, Scrivens has fallen into that nebulous zone between the AHL and NHL: perhaps too good to play in the former; not good enough to be called upon – with regularity – in the latter. Waffling between Reimer and Scrivens has been Carlyle’s lone defect as coach of the Maple Leafs.
His decision to not allow Reimer an extra four day’s rest after the knee strain has contributed to the goalie’s irregular performance. Reimer was on a personal six-game victory streak when he foundered against Pittsburgh (not exactly uncommon for goalies) at the ACC last weekend. Though a couple of weak goals enabled the Penguins to build a lead, Reimer played splendidly in the third period – helping to earn Leafs a point – before James Neal and Sidney Crosby scored decisive goals in the shoot-out.
Three nights later, Reimer was mediocre in a “we-need-you-to-save-our-ass” game at Winnipeg. Leafs were abysmal at the MTS Centre and their goalie couldn’t bail them out. Afterward, Carlyle made his second bad move: calling upon Scrivens to face Crosby and Co. once again at the ACC. Leafs, and Scrivens, folded late in the third period, losing 3-1.
The game itself was immaterial; Pittsburgh isn’t losing to anyone these days. Far more damaging was Carlyle’s decision to keep Reimer on the bench after a frightful showing, across the board, in Winnipeg. The book is still out on Optimus Reim for a number of reasons – not least of which is a pattern of momentum-stalling injury. We remember his promising first couple of weeks last season before it was derailed by the Brian Gionta collision in Montreal. Promise again abounded when Reimer stretched awkwardly in the crease against Philadelphia in Game 13 (coincidence?) of the current schedule.
No one – least of all Carlyle – needed a medical doctorate to figure that Reimer would show some rust after his knee ailment. Still, the goalie prevailed in three games before the team-wide stinker in Manitoba – not nearly enough justification to yank him for the second Pittsburgh match.
NHL goaltenders are fragile creatures. Deft handling is required for them to maintain a belief system over six to eight months.
Coaches, accordingly, are judged by the decisions they make.
Like many of you, Carlyle may believe he doesn’t have a true, No. 1 netminder. Such concern, however, is outside his realm of authority; GM David Nonis bears encumbrance for all Leaf players. Until Nonis concludes the position must be up-graded, Carlyle’s responsibility is to throw support behind his best man – as he initially did Reimer – and keep it there, barring disaster.
A terrible Leaf performance in Winnipeg last Tuesday, from top to bottom, is hardly the calamity I’m referring to. More telling, in the big picture, was Scrivens’ blunder-filled second period against the Jets this weekend; Carlyle feeling compelled to replace him for the third frame.
If Carlyle and Reimer cannot build mutual trust – and it starts with the coach – Leafs will miss the playoffs for an eighth consecutive spring.
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