By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Apr. 3) – It is a virtual blessing for the Maple Leafs that Miikka Kiprusoff chose to stay put in Calgary – averting potential destruction of the environment that has enabled Leafs to become one of the most dynamic clubs in the National Hockey League this season. Why anyone felt that a brooding, reluctant veteran would enhance playoff expectation was a mystery from the get-go.
You know how Boston fans shout “Thank you Kessel!” when the Leafs play at TD Garden? Toronto zealots should follow suit when Calgary makes its lone appearance at Air Canada Centre next season. If choruses of “Thank you Miikka!” aren’t ringing out, Leaf fans weren’t paying attention today.
Sure, the Nervous Nellies and worry warts around here will lose sleep over James Reimer and his lack of playoff experience. I’ve often wondered how a goalie can obtain such value during the pre-season and regular season. Leafs haven’t appeared at any other time for nearly a decade.
Moreover, acquaintance with playoff warfare sure came in handy for Marc-Andre Fleury last spring, didn’t it? The 2009 Stanley Cup winning goalie couldn’t stop a balloon against Philadelphia in the opening round. How about Jaroslav Halak? Wasn’t he the puck-stopper that guided Montreal through its Cinderella playoff march in 2010? Ol’ Jaro could hardly get off the bench for St. Louis in its four-game embarrassment against Los Angeles.
Speaking of the Kings, Jonathan Quick wasn’t exactly a hardened playoff warrior with 12 appearances and a lousy 4-8 record prior to last spring. If I remember correctly – and I was there – Quick raised the Conn Smythe Trophy at Staples Center last June 11th moments after L.A. knocked off New Jersey to win the Stanley Cup.
LEAFS WERE FORTUNATE NOT TO MESS WITH OPTIMUS REIM – A LEGITIMATE NO. 1 GOALIE IN THE NHL THIS SEASON. JANA CHYTILOVA GETTY IMAGES/ NHL.COM
Folks here in Toronto may recall a chap named Felix Potvin. On Apr. 19, it will be 20 years since Potvin and the Maple Leafs began a rather enchanting playoff odyssey that ended one month and ten days later in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup semifinals. Felix had exactly zero minutes of playoff experience before the 1993 tournament opener in Detroit.
When the most-recent NHL lockout ended in early January – and Leafs did not have Roberto Luongo in uniform – many figured the club was doomed to failure once again. How could fledgling Reimer lead the Blue and White beyond oblivion? Perhaps a 13-4-4 record; stellar .920 save percentage, and respectable 2.52 goals-against average on a middling defensive team has provided the answer.
Goaltenders are notoriously delicate creatures, and justifiably so. Self-assurance among this breed will occasionally soar and frequently wane. When you have a netminder – regardless of experience – surging with confidence, there is no reason to play mind games.
If I were David Nonis, I wouldn’t have even glanced in Calgary’s direction prior to the trade deadline. Leafs are endowed with one of the best young goalies in the NHL. Of course, that provides no guarantee that Reimer will excel in the post season, but having a Stanley Cup ring – as mentioned – didn’t prevent Fleury from coming apart at the seams last year. Neither did Luongo, Henrik Lunqvist nor Tim Thomas distinguish themselves.
Kiprusoff, for all his experience, has enjoyed but one dazzling playoff: guiding Calgary to within a game of the Stanley Cup in 2004 (Flames lost to Tampa Bay). Otherwise, he’s a pedestrian 25-28 in 56 playoff appearances. Hardly the “guarantee” Leafs would have obtained by making such a pointless move before today’s deadline.
Nonis did well. He gave up only a fourth-round draft pick in the deal for strapping defenseman Ryan O’Byrne. Of greater significance, he chose not to fool with whatever chemistry – and I abhor that overused term – his young, relentless club has developed this season.
Let’s not become greedy, Leaf admirers. No one expected a Stanley Cup run in 2013. The fact we’ll see an actual playoff game in these parts is novel enough, given the franchise-record drought. There is no harm in believing that Reimer can do the job. His only apparent bugaboo is the shoot-out and we thankfully do not have to endure such nonsense after Apr. 27.
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