New Year’s Special: GDT – Leafs at Jets (7 p.m., CBC)

New Year’s Special: GDT – Leafs at Jets (7 p.m., CBC)

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Photo: REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Happy New Year, MLHS!

The Leafs are in Winnipeg tonight for a New Year’s Eve clash with the Jets on Hockey Night Canada. In a nice storyline, James Reimer’s one year anniversary between the Leafs’ pipes will coincide with his first opportunity to start on NHL ice in his home province as a big league goaltender.

In the midst of a 2011 that saw a meteroic rise beyond his wildest dreams, the Brian Gionta incident and subsequent concussion – or soreneck/whiplash/concussion-like symptoms – suffered during a late October meeting with the Canadiens has posed the first major bout of adversity Reimer has had to encounter as the Leaf number one.

His play since returning from the 18-game layoff – while not without his good games, including a strong three-game string prior to the Christmas break – has been inconsistent at best. The former fourth rounder, who in mere weeks went from the somewhat unnoticed one on the goalie depth chart to the great white hope for a hockey club plagued by post-lockout goaltending woes, has recently struggled to live up to the new expectation, both his own and that of the organization, fans and pundits alike.

A near perfect 4-0-1 prior to injury has been soured by a 3-3-1, .868 stretch since returning to drop Reimer’s save percentage below .900 on the season. His save percentage and goals against average, once challenging for the league lead during his emergence last season, don’t currently qualify him for the top 30.

James Reimer’s 27-13-9 record in this league is no fluke, but the happy-go-lucky 23-year-old from small town Manitoba is undoubtedly undergoing his first serious slump and test of resolve.

Justin Goldman of The Goalie Guild was kind enough to field a few questions on Reimer’s latest struggles ahead of tonight’s tilt in Winnipeg:

1) How big is the challenge of returning from injury, in particular a concussion, for a goaltender? Is it reasonable to expect Reimer to be in top form already?

“I think because Reimer spent so much time practicing before he returned from his head injury, it is reasonable to expect him to be in ‘top form’ by now. Expectations for him are very high. If he is truly the right goalie for the Leafs in terms of making the playoffs this year, there are no excuses for terrible outings or untimely goals. It is not easy to be a successful and consistent goalie in Toronto, but those are the expectations, and he’s not living up to them right now. It’s a harsh world to live in, but one that he must trudge through during the ever-so-difficult sophomore season. Whether this is fair or not comes down to each reader’s own personal expectations for him. I personally feel like he’s underachieving right now, but it’s not injury related; it is confidence related.”

2) Why has Reimer has struggled so mightily on the PK this season? His .937 save percentage at even strength ranks him 9th in the league and his .768 on the penalty kill ranks 72nd. That’s drastic. Could this be a confidence issue? Does his blocking style fail him on the PK, when instincts and scrambling ability become of heightened importance?

“Goalies that are successful on the PK have an extremely good understanding of the game. They can read plays very well, they can find pucks through traffic, and they can establish a presence high in their crease, despite screens or players skating in and out of their line of vision. On too many occassions, Reimer is caught too deep in his crease, flat-footed, and without support from his PK units on back-door plays. Killing penalties is a team effort, and regardless of how much fault you place on the players or the goalie, Reimer has to learn that there are times when he needs to move his feet and push into shots, challenge shooters, and scramble with more effectiveness. He is only a second-year NHL goaltender; he still has many things to learn in terms of killing penalties. As a result of not having much NHL experience, confidence is clearly an issue. All you can do is hope that he continues to work hard and that the team as a whole improves in this area. If you were to look at every NHL goalie’s save percentage on the PK over the past 2-3 seasons, I bet you would find veterans like Tomas Vokoun and Tim Thomas high on the list. Experience and team play go a long way, but you also need very quick feet, elite vision, and tremendous flexibility and agility. I don’t think Reimer excels in any of those areas compared to most other NHL goalies right now. He’s still very much a work in progress.”

3) Is giving Reimer a good run of starts to play through it the way to get him back on track?

“I don’t think Reimer’s focus is an issue as much as I think it is his confidence. I think his throne needs to be threatened. I think Jonas Gustavsson should be given some more opportunities. I think handing Reimer starts and hoping he gets out of a “funk” or “gets back on track” is missing the point of pushing goalies to play at their best. Gustavsson was very good near the tail end of Reimer’s absence; he was a valuable part of the team’s success at the time. That should have opened up more doors for him to earn more starts, but it hasn’t over the past few weeks. You will often find that when the backup plays well, the starter hits another gear and turns on the inner intensity and elevates their game. I hope Reimer plays well tonight in Winnipeg, but if he doesn’t, Gustavsson needs to get some looks so that Reimer knows nothing will be handed to him. The harder he works to earn his starts, the harder he will work in games, the better focused he will appear, the more his confidence will rise.”

***

Game Notes:

Trying to stop the slide won’t be an easy task for the Leafs tonight. Tyler Bozak has been placed on the IR, meaning he is out for a minimum seven days, after he injured his shoulder falling into the boards in practice. This could change the look of the lineup drastically given Connolly and Grabovski will have to rotate up the lineup. Matthew Lombardi has been activated off IR.

The MTS Centre has been a fortress for the Jets. They’re shooting for their 14th win at home tonight, which would lead the Eastern Conference. They’re 8-2-1 at home in the month of December. The Jets’ starter for tonight, Ondrej Pavelec, is 5-2-1 with a 1.36 GAA at home this month. It should be a fantastic atmosphere tonight, especially with traveling Leafs fans mixed into the already raucous crowd.

The Leafs meanwhile have dropped five of their last seven on the road.

The two teams sport identical records of 18-14-5, tied for 7th in the East. With the Capitals charging, and the Jets and Sens playing well as of late, the Leafs are at real risk of falling out of the top 8 if they don’t get back on track tonight. Tonight’s result will likely decide if the Leafs end 2011 in or out of a playoff spot.

Alec Brownscombe is the founder of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He was also the editor of the 2009-12 Maple Leafs Annuals. You can contact him at [email protected]

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