Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Reimer Heading into Joseph/Belfour Territory

james reimer leafs playoffs
James Reimer is the rightful heir to Curtis Joseph's throne.

The young netminder has been a rock for the Leafs this season, essentially dragging the team into the playoffs. His .926 save percentage is sixth in the league, just a tick below Henrik Lundqvist and Cory Schneider.

Apart from the five games after Reimer returned from knee surgery, in which his save percentage was .893, the Morweena, Manitoba native has posted a .933 save percentage. He has been exactly what the Leafs have been searching for since Father Time chopped down Ed Belfour eight years ago: A true No. 1 goalie.

Reimer's ascension is even more amazing considering goaltending was a major question heading into the season for Toronto, so much so that Roberto Luongo to the Leafs seemed like a foregone conclusion. As a response, Reimer elevated his game and made Leafs management realize the solution to the long-term problem was in-house all along.

He has silenced all reasonable doubt about his ability to handle the No. 1 duties, facing the pressure from the demanding Toronto fan base and media without showing a crack. Being unable to withstand the immense pressure that comes with playing in Toronto has been a longstanding criticism of failed Leafs teams of the past.

Last year, when the Leafs got their first whiff of the playoffs, the team fell apart down the stretch, winning a brutal seven of their final 29 games. This year, Reimer made sure there was no repeat, going 5-2-1 in April with a 2.12 GAA and a sizzling .939 save percentage. Those numbers are even more impressive considering the Leafs have been outshot 278-183 in his April starts— that's allowing the opposition 60% of all the shots. The last-place Florida Panthers only allow about 52%.

Reimer has been the Leafs' MVP this season, and it really isn't even close. On average, the Leafs have been outshot 33-27, the worst shot differential of any playoff team since the 2001-02 Montreal Canadiens (32-26), the year Jose Theodore won the Hart Trophy as the league MVP. In total, the Leafs have been outshot in 34 of their 45 games, meaning Reimer has been a busy goalie. In fact, only four goalies have registered more 35+ save performances, and those four have all played more games than Reimer.

Facing a barrage of rubber makes Reimer a worthy successor to the Joseph-Belfour lineage. Both Joseph and Belfour were often under constant bombardment in Toronto, the result of playing behind some defensively porous teams. The ability to perform under such duress made Joseph and Belfour mythical figures in Toronto, a city that just seems to love a solid netminder even more than they love the blue-collared, hard-working player (and Toronto loves that type of player). It looks like Reimer may be next to receive such treatment.

But before the statues go up and the folk songs are written, he'll have to do it in the playoffs.

Both Joseph and Belfour were already proven playoff performers by the time they took over the netminding job in Toronto. Leafs fans knew first-hand what Joseph could do, watching him push a team-of-destiny Maple Leafs squad to seven games in the second-round of the 1993 playoffs (Joseph led the playoffs with a .938 save percentage that year). And Belfour already had a Stanley Cup ring on his resume. Once becoming Maple Leafs, both Joseph and Belfour continued their excellent ways and were simply outstanding during the post-season, routinely stealing games and series (oh hey there, Ottawa fans).

While Reimer doesn't have any playoff experience, there is no reason to suggest he will turn into a pumpkin once the post-season begins. This season on Saturday nights—the big, nationally-televised games—Reimer went 6-2-2 with a 1.48 GAA and a .959 save percentage. The pressure didn't faze him then, and considering he posted a .927 save percentage against playoff teams, there is no evidence to suggest it will affect him in a few weeks.

The Leafs certainly won't be the best team heading into the playoffs, but at least they have Reimer. And anytime you head into the playoffs with a stud goalie, anything can happen. There are plenty of examples of underdog teams defying expectations and making a run, all thanks to a hot goalie. Think of Braden Holtby leading the Capitals to an upset win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins last year, or the 2010 Montreal Canadiens riding Jaroslav Halak past Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.

Thanks to Reimer, the Leafs have more than a chance.

The agonizing, back-breaking goals that characterized so many post-lockout games are gone. Images of Vesa Toskala allowing 197-foot shots or Jonas Gustavsson giving up game-winning dump-in goals are quickly fading. In their place are saves that revive long dormant memories of Joseph and Belfour slamming the door, giving the team a chance to win regardless of how badly they may be outplayed.

Reimer has yet to take the most important step needed to take his rightful place alongside Joseph and Belfour in the pantheon of beloved Leafs goalies, but he'll soon get his chance.


Connor McBrine-Ellis said...

good article. I hope that Reimer continues to have success this year, even with Bernier added into the mix!

Matt Horner said...

Thanks, Connor! I hope so too.

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