January 9, 2012
Leafs playoffs dream comes down to goaltending
By Lance Hornby, QMI Agency
Goaltending will once again dictate the Maple Leafs’ second-half fortunes.
This time, however, Toronto should not have to scramble to find some crease competence in its remaining 41 games. Based on a combined record of 18-11-4, they can choose between Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer. Which means one need not be driven into the ground, as Reimer was in playing 29 of the final 33 games of last season.
Reimer lost his exclusive hold on the starter’s job to a combination of concussion and the team’s near-complete breakdown of penalty killing whenever he played. But it would be wrong to think the 23-year-old won’t have a big role when the Leafs get into 10 back-to-back situations starting this week.
Gustavsson, whose only supporter seemed to be general manager Brian Burke during Reimer’s summer of love with fans and media, has corrected a few flaws to win the past three, looking as sharp as his last good streak, near the end of his rookie year in 2009-10.
It has been a long time since the Leafs had a meaningful goaltending controversy with playoff implications. But Gustavsson would not use say controversy on Saturday night when his 4-3 win over the Red Wings brought the Leafs to the halfway mark, nine points ahead of last year’s pace. Reimer was one of his biggest supporters at low ebb and now the Monster is reciprocating.
“He’s a great buddy,” Gustavsson said. “We can compete, but still be friends. We’re not at the end of our careers, we’re still developing, we can still push (each other).”
The Leafs are the NHL’s second-youngest team, but almost half the roster has missed the playoffs here the least two years and heard ad nauseum about the team missing the boat since 2004. But unlike the past six years, the Leafs aren’t looking up at a crowded NHL ladder. They sit seventh overall and if they keep making hay on this homestand, the rest of the winter just might be spent holding or improving that spot instead of taking the long way home from deep in the pack.
Not only has the goaltending held up, the Leafs have scored their way out of trouble a few times, thanks to Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul staying in the NHL’s top five. A long injury eased slightly this past week with the return of Mike Komisarek and Mike Brown and the Leafs didn’t fade after losing Reimer, first-line centre Tyler Bozak, character winger Colby Armstrong and offensive blueliner John-Michael Liles.
Major hurdles remain of course. Toronto still has 13 divisional games remaining (their record so far is 4-7), four more games in Western Canada and 11 of the final 19 on the road, starting Leap Year Day in Chicago. But the second half is also where better goaltending has shown up in the past few years, be it Jean-Sebastien Aubin, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Gustavsson or Reimer.
If that holds true, then playoff tickets can be printed.