TAMPA - To all those cynics out there who have been pleading for the Maple Leafs to wave the white flag of surrender in order to get a better draft position, rookie defenceman Jake Gardiner and birthday boy James Reimer have a message for you.
No one is about to insinuate that the Bay St. beancounters at Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment should start printing up playoff ducats after Thursday night’s 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
At the same time, watching Gardiner’s impressive highlight-reel goal should be a message that all is not gloom and doom when it comes to this struggling franchise.
The same could be said for Reimer who, on the day he turned 24, turned aside 34 shots and showed the solid form that he exhibited prior to suffering a concussion after being run over by Montreal’s Brian Gionta in late October.
Midway through the second period, Gardiner took the puck at his own blueline, then passed it off the boards back to himself in order to avoid Tampa Bay’s Brian Lee. Once in the Lightning end, he completed a nifty drag of the puck that send Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman sliding past him, then beat rookie goalie Dustin Tokarski.
While Gardiner’s shot did, in fact, deflect in off the stick of a Lightning defender, it was the spectacular way in which the rookie defenceman put himself in that scoring position that had tongues wagging up in the press box.
One of those who was left impressed by Gardiner is Scotty Bowman, the NHL’s long-time winningest coach who was on hand at the Tampa Bay Times Forum like he often is during the winter months.
“He’s going to be good,” Bowman noted. “I really like his style. He is really calm out there and holds onto the puck. That’s a really difficult thing to do. And he’s just a first-year player.”
Gardiner’s response to the goal?
“It was cool, it was awesome” he said. “I haven’t scored many like that in my career.”
Gardiner, like the majority of his teammates, has not been good during the Leafs ugly swoon of the past few weeks, one that saw them go just 2-13-2 in the 17 games leading up to their meeting against the Lightning.
The same could be said for Reimer, who coach Randy Carlyle described as being “nervous” in the early going of the Leafs 5-2 loss in Florida against the Panthers on Tuesday at the BankAtlantic Center.
Give Carlyle credit. After reviewing video of the loss to the Panthers, he determined that the goals were not Reimer’s fault and put him back in.
Asked if the Panthers game was the most frustrated he’d been in his pro career, Reimer said no.
“When I played for Charleston (SC) in the East Coast League, we had a chance to clinch a title at home and lost in overtime,” Reimer chuckled. “As a result we had to travel 18 hours back to Anchorage, Alaska for Game 6. We had to go from Charlotte to Philadelphia to Phoenix to Anchorage to get there. That was frustrating.
“At least we ended up winning the title there.”
Reimer said the victory over Tampa was a relief for his emotionally drained team.
“It’s always fun to walk into the dressing room after a win and hear the music blaring,” he said.
Even with the victory, the playoffs remain little more than a fading dream. With just 11 games remaining, the Leafs are eight points behind the eighth-place Washington Capitals, who hold a game in hand.
On this night, however, Jake Gardiner and James Reimer showed there still might be some hope for the future.