Reimer feeling the love

Maple Leafs fans and players have taken to rookie goaltender James Reimer, but he'll have to prove...

Maple Leafs fans and players have taken to rookie goaltender James Reimer, but he'll have to prove that he is more than a one-hit wonder. (AL BELLO/Getty Images)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:58 PM ET

DENVER — He may be on the eve of just his 30th game as an NHL goaltender, but James Reimer feels the love.

He feels it from his family and friends who made the seven-hour drive from Morweena, Man., to Minnesota to see him record his third career shutout on Tuesday night.

He feels it from the fans at the Air Canada Centre, who seem livelier than they have in years when Reimer puts on a show.

And he feels it from his teammates who aren’t shy to acknowledge that Reimer has played a huge role in the team’s impressive surge since January.

“I’m blessed that the fans have taken to me a bit,” Reimer said following a brisk practice Wednesday at the University of Denver in advance of Thursday’s game against the Avalanche. “They like to see me play and that’s a fun position to be in that I try not to take for granted.

“I’m going to keep playing hard and hopefully that will lead to more wins.”

With a growing body of work, the groundswell of support surrounding Reimer is rocketing and for good, legitimate reasons. His latest shutout raised his save percentage to .925, tied for third best in the league behind only Boston’s Tim Thomas (.937) and Nashville’s Pekka Rinne (.930.)

For too many seasons now, Leafs fans have been craving a player to embrace as the team tries to fight its way out of the dark hole in which it has taken residence. Almost any time this team has had success over the past two decades, they have had stand-on-your-head goaltenders leading the way (think Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour.)

The head tells you that it’s too early to plan a parade around Reimer with such a limited, albeit impressive, run of success that amounts to less than a half season’s work. But the heart makes it difficult not to get at least a little enthused.

“He’s a really refreshing kid to be around,” Leafs defenceman Mike Komisarek said. “You can’t say enough about him as a person and he’s an even better player.

“He’s been great for us. He’s been a huge part of why we’ve had such success since the all-star break.”

What strikes Komisarek and the rest of the teammates is the way Reimer works at refining his game under Leafs goalie coach, Francois Allaire. Like all three goalies currently with the team, he’s often the first player on the ice at practice and the last player off.

“He worked hard in the minors and when he had the chance this year, he took advantage of it,” said J-S Giguere, the veteran who has been relegated to backup for the stretch drive. “That’s a testament to what kind of kid he is. He hasn’t let it go to his head and he deserves what he’s getting.”

The worry — and it’s not without foundation — is that Reimer is still in the one-hit wonder phase of his career. Obviously, he needs to back up the dazzling debut next season and, with that in mind, it certainly will be interesting to see how general manager Brian Burke approaches the goaltending situation in the off-season.

Though Reimer is a restricted free agent, the Leafs are sure to exercise caution and will likely consider having a veteran at the ready should Reimer struggle as a sophomore and/or Jonas Gustavsson continue to struggle.

But Giguere, for one, doesn’t believe Reimer’s success is flash in the pan. Though Friday’s meeting with the Avalanche will be his 30th game, it will be Reimer’s 28th start, meaning he has a shutout in better than 10% of his appearances.

“He’s really focussing on what he does and making sure he doesn’t leave anything to luck,” Giguere said. “Everything he does has a purpose. He reminds me a lot of when I was his age. Not to flatter myself, when I see him at 22, I feel that was maybe what I was like.”

That Reimer is even part of the Leafs right now, never mind the leading force in their late playoff aspirations, required a bizarre sequence of events mostly related to struggles by Gustavsson and a nagging injury to Giguere.

Though Wilson was impressed with the performance Reimer turned in during a pre-season game against the Flyers at London, Ont., like the rest of the Toronto hockey world, the coach didn’t expect this.

“I don’t think we ever had him pencilled in,” Wilson said. “He was spectacular in that game (in London) and that’s when we started to think he’s got maybe another solid year and he’d be ready.

“By circumstance, he’s come in and got the job done ever since. To his credit, he’s taken advantage of the situation and ran with it.”

Perhaps the best part about Reimer’s success has been the fact that he may be getting better, almost by the game. What stood out in his latest clean slate Tuesday in Minnesota was his poise when Wild players got in alone.

If opponents are finding a weakness in the rookie — the glove hand being the most often cited — Reimer Is not buying it.

“I’m not sure how it works from a shooter’s perspective. I just try to read each player and each shot as they come down on me,” Reimer said.

“Obviously, I don’t have a book on them so I just try to read their stick and body language and hope I read it right.”

He is being modest, of course, but that too is part of the package from the big soft-spoken kid who can’t wipe the smile off his face following each of his 16 (and counting) wins).

“When the season started, I expected to be in the minors and get one or two starts and if I was lucky, maybe five,” Reimer said.

“I try not to think of it too much, just try to enjoy the ride and not look too far ahead. To get this opportunity and play in my 30th game, it’s exciting. It’s more than a dream come true.”

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

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