Wilson won't bench Reimer

Jets forward Jim Slater (right) tries to get a shot on Leafs goalie James Reimer while being...

Jets forward Jim Slater (right) tries to get a shot on Leafs goalie James Reimer while being checked by defenceman Carl Gunnarsson during their first meeting in October. (REUTERS)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:35 PM ET

WINNIPEG - It is among the many traditions of the hockey-mad fans here to heartily boo the goaltender opposing their beloved Jets.

So imagine if Leafs coach Ron Wilson had decided to go with Jonas Gustavsson and bench the pride of nearby Morweena, Man., James Reimer for the New Year’s Eve gala set to take place at the MTS Centre.

Even that seemed too much for Wilson, never one to bow to public opinion, although he probably could have made a compelling case for sitting his No. 1 netminder.

But as an up-tempo practice designed to sweat the stupidity of road losses to Carolina and Florida out of their system ended Friday afternoon, Wilson told Reimer he would make a sixth consecutive start here when the Leafs play the new-era Jets for the first time in the ‘Peg.

Not that Wilson sounded convinced that it was the hockey smart thing to do, however.

“He’s got every reason to have his best game tomorrow night,” Wilson said. “I thought about (sitting Reimer), but it wouldn’t be fair to him. The player would always take that the wrong way and he wants to play in this game.

“He’s probably marked that himself at the beginning of the season. I’m not going to take that opportunity away from just about any player.”

If Reimer’s psyche was anywhere near fragile, getting benched before family and friends would have been a potentially crushing blow. He’s managed to secure 15 tickets — in a town where they are tough to come by — that will go to family and friends starting with two parents, two grandparents and three siblings.

Others in Morweena will be making the 90-minute journey (depending on the weather) south to the city for what promises to be an electric night as the New Year’s Eve tradition of pro hockey continues here.

While Reimer has taken the glass half-full approach that two 40-plus saves prior to Christmas followed by the two sub-par efforts in Carolina and Florida are symptomatic of the inevitable ebbs and flows of the season, it isn’t yet convincing. Statistically, anyway, Reimer is nowhere near the goaltender that carried the Leafs through a brilliant second half of last season and was expected to lead them to the promised land of the NHL playoffs this season.

Recent struggles by the team and its netminder have the Leafs in a seventh-place tie with the Jets adding another layer to the excitement of the team’s first visit here since 1996.

For Reimer, getting yanked after giving up three goals on eight shots on Tuesday may have been a career low point. And those last two games, including Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Hurricanes, has seen Reimer’s save percentage dip below .900 to .899, 36th in the league. His goals against average is similarly underwhelming at 3.00, 35th among NHL goalers.

While he seemed to be regaining momentum from the head injury that kept him out of the lineup for 18 games, Reimer seems to be fighting the puck at times. And every opponent, it seems, is determined to fire the puck high glove side, the one spot where he is most vulnerable.

“I’m proud of what I do and I love to be great at what I do,” Reimer said on Friday before meeting up with family after practice. “I don’t like losing and I don’t like letting goals in.

“I think it’s just a matter of staying focussed and working hard to keep it out of the net. There’s no huge answer, really, just keep doing what you know you can do and eventually you are going to get the bounces.”

Still, Reimer is his own harshest critic and thus shrugged off Wilson’s suggestion that the overtime blast by Eric Staal Thursday was a save he should have made.

“I take it as what he says, I don’t disagree with him,” Reimer said. “If somebody states the obvious, the sky is blue, all right the sky is blue.

“(Wilson) has every right to pump my tires or deflate them, whatever he feels is necessary. I’m not going to sit there and pout about it and I’m not going to sit there and be on top of the world if he says I played a great game.

“I know what I have to do and so does he.”

Reimer, meanwhile, hopes the motivation of playing in front of family and friends on the nationally televised game will help put an end to his mini funk.

“I can use it as motivation,” Reimer said. “I always like to play well for my team and for myself but especially when your family is in town, it will be a positive for me. Hopefully I can use their support to my advantage.”

A win would be nice symmetry for Reimer, bookending the most memorial year of his life. It was on Jan. 1, after, all that he made his first NHL start and earned his first big-league win.

“We have all the confidence in the world he will bounce back,” Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn said.

“I don’t think it’s going to make or break the season for him, but it’s definitely going to be a big game not only for him but for our team.

It’s maybe a statement game, a game on the big stage with everyone watching.”

twitter.com/longleysunsport


Videos

Photos