Bernier Mystery Deepens

By HOWARD BERGER

UPDATE: Toronto Maple Leafs today confirmed that goalie Jonathan Bernier has a groin-strain (as we expected) and is “believed to be day-to-day.” But, the question is: Why was Bernier allowed to aggravate what was clearly an existing condition by starting against his former team in Los Angeles last Monday? Given his impact on the Leafs, such clearance should not have been provided under any circumstance.

Here was coach Randy Carlyle’s explanation, courtesy the Toronto Sun, for allowing Bernier to face the Kings: “(Bernier) had a little bit of a strain and it did not bother him, he said he felt fine, and then when we got to L.A., he felt it was bothering him to the point that I was going to question him whether he was going to go,” Carlyle said. “I said, make the decision whether you’re going or not. After the first period, he said he did not feel comfortable, that it was feeling worse.”

This is muddled, to say the least. What I suspect is that Bernier should have been nailed to the bench at Staples Center in favor of James Reimer. Perhaps not even in uniform. Why Leafs took any risk with their meal-ticket and No. 1 goalie is beyond comprehension. It has also been my experience in covering the Leafs that muscle “strains” are actually slight “tears” – two very different ailments. Let’s see how this plays out.

TORONTO (Mar. 17) – While refusing (or unable) to show up in four of six periods, the Toronto Maple Leafs have lost two of their past three games – a “slump” for a team that had been performing at a near-record clip since mid-January.

Nowhere to be found in San Jose last Tuesday; then, again, in Washington for the opening 20 minutes yesterday, Leafs are among a cozy pack of contenders in the Eastern Conference – their tenuous hold on a guaranteed divisional playoff spot in jeopardy tonight when Tampa Bay hosts Vancouver. Should the Lightning (with two games in hand) prevail, Leafs will drop into the first Wild Card perch – four points ahead of the idle New York Rangers and five clear of playoff oblivion. Games at Detroit (tomorrow night) and at home to Tampa Bay (on Wednesday) take on extra meaning in the hunt for a second consecutive post-season berth. And so it will be until Leafs can wrap up that coveted spot – likely to require 92 to 94 points (Toronto has 80 with 13 games left).

JAMES REIMER WAS UNDER SEIGE IN THE FIRST PERIOD AT WASHINGTON ON SUNDAY, AS CAPITALS OUT-SHOT THE LEAFS 14-3 AND SCORED THE DECISIVE GOALS IN A 4-2 VICTORY OVER THE BLUE AND WHITE. ROB CARR GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

Exactly why the Maple Leafs – without warning – become as flat as month-old soda is likely not puzzling, for it wouldn’t occur with such consistency if it were in their control. On too many occasions, the club has been unprepared to wage battle in the opening minutes. There is no way to rationalize being out-scored, 3-0, and out-shot, 14-2, by such a marginal outfit was the Washington Capitals. Yet, that was the first-period carnage at Verizon Center yesterday and – as it turned out – the game’s decisive juncture. One can only assume this is unavoidable, for it happens too often and separates the Blue and White from the truly elite clubs in the NHL. Fortunately for the Leafs, they have played exceptionally well since mid-January (15-5-3 in 23 games) and are often capable of overcoming deficits. What Leafs (or any club) cannot overcome is the energy depletion of clawing from behind – a habit that must be shelved before the Stanley Cup tournament begins.

James Reimer was part-cause, part-victim of the early Capital uprising and will face the Red Wings tomorrow night at Joe Louis Arena. As for the mystery surrounding Jonathan Bernier (which I examined in my previous blog: 1e5v9Kq), it only deepened yesterday. Reporters traveling with the Leafs were again kept well clear of the club’s No. 1 goalie and chose to raise the subject with differing magnitude:

ROSIE DiMANNO, Toronto Star: Still, the question might fairly be asked: What’s with Jonathan Bernier, really, and when might the No. 1 starter return to the Leaf net?

However, the covert operation to keep Bernier away from the media continued here on Sunday. Asking Toronto’s PR point-man to provide the netminder for questioning elicited only a shocked expression — oh, couldn’t possibly. You crazy?

All that can be said — because surely nobody with the team would outright lie about it, right? — is that Bernier is still with the club, hadn’t headed home early to receive medical attention for whatever it was that drove him out of the net in Los Angeles three nights earlier, lower-body thing, don’t pry.

Has an MRI been conducted? Dunno.

Is the ailment serious enough that Bernier might be a while getting back between the posts with just 13 games left in the season? Dunno.

There was only this one clue from coach Randy Carlyle: “We know that Reims will start the next game, probably, in all probability.”

ROB LONGLEY, Toronto Sun: Jonathan Bernier was in the building, but not in the Maple Leafs net.

And just when he returns to action seems to be somewhat of a mystery.

Toronto coach Randy Carlyle strongly suggested following Sunday’s 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals that James Reimer will make a second consecutive start Tuesday in Detroit when the Leafs face the Red Wings to conclude a five-game road swing.

Bernier, who aggravated a lower-body injury on Thursday in Los Angeles, was spotted riding a stationary bike at the Verizon Center on Sunday. However, Carlyle had no update on his status beyond saying that “in all probability” Reimer will face the Wings.

While it’s possible the team is just being cautious with Bernier, who has emerged as the club’s clear No. 1, Carlyle said on Saturday that the first-year Leaf was awaiting an MRI.

JONAS SIEGEL, TSN: Carlyle had little to offer as far as an update on Bernier, who remained with the team in Washington Sunday ahead of the trip to Detroit. It’s clear the 25-year-old will miss his second straight game against the Red Wings Tuesday, the clarity of lower-body injury yet to be fully revealed.

CHRIS JOHNSTON, Sportsnet: Carlyle didn’t have any update on the status of Jonathan Bernier’s undisclosed lower-body injury following the game, but he indicated that Reimer would likely start against the Red Wings.

If Bernier is somehow not capable of returning – at the latest – by Saturday night’s home game against Montreal, the scrutiny among reporters should intensify (I say “should” because it’s contingent on the media person involved, and how much he or she wishes to press the issue). Undoubtedly, the club will continue to skirt the topic if it gets a free pass from those that liaise with the public. Fans of the team deserve to know – transparently – what is ailing Bernier and reporters, in my view, are obliged to try and determine whether or not the Maple Leafs erred by starting him against his former team in Los Angeles.

Uncomfortable territory on which to tread.

But, mandatory nonetheless.

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