James Reimer VS Jonathan Bernier: The Rematch


“It’s not how hard you get hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit. Its’ how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.
-Rocky Balboa


We’ve all seen it. Against all odds the underdog rises up to win the hearts of the sporting world. James Reimer has a whole bunch of Rocky Balboa in him. Maybe not the dialect, but the champion spirit. The difference here is this isn’t the movies. Professional sports has all kinds of feel good storylines and characters. In the end though pedigree and talent almost always win out. That brings me to the reigning champion of the Leafs net, Jonathan Bernier. He’ll be playing the role of French Apollo Creed. Creed was cocky, brash and a fine tuned specimen.

When Bernier was acquired via trade from the LA Kings, a divide in Leaf Nation was created. A Grand Canyon size split. Many viewed the deal as a slap in the face to the “Gee Golly Gosh” Reimer. The likeable net-minder had positioned himself as maybe the most popular player amongst Leaf fans. And hey, with good reason. He carried the team to its first playoff berth in nine long years. That was followed up with a stellar playoff performance, only to have it marred by a third period collapse we won’t rehash at this juncture. This left the front office with tough decisions to make. Was Reimer the guy to shoulder the load moving forward? Could he get them over the hump and be a Stanley Cup winning goal-tender someday? Hence the acquisition of one Jonathan Bernier.

This left the front office with tough decisions to make. Was Reimer the guy to shoulder the load moving forward? Could he get them over the hump and be a Stanley Cup winning goal-tender someday? Hence the acquisition of one Jonathan Bernier.

The question leading into the 2013/14 season all Leaf fans were asking was “Who is our number one goalie?” The Maple Leafs tried to sell it as a 1A/1B scenario, and even if it was a sincere hope, nobody was buying. In a market like this, a winner had to be declared. Sides were formed and away we went. Leafs Nation took to their respective corners. The bell had been rung.

Much to the dismay of the confident Bernier, Reimer was given the start on opening night. The technically sound net-minder was road blocked by Conn Smyth winner Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles. The former first round pick likely wasn’t thrilled by the possibility of encountering the same circumstance here in Toronto. Bernier wouldn’t have to wait long to seize his fresh opportunity and that was exactly what he did.

Once the native of Laval, Quebec was given the reins, he didn’t let go. Despite being absolutely peppered with rubber night after night, he piled up the wins. His calm play in the net was a change from Reimer, who often scrambles and relies on pure will to get the job done. In comparison, Bernier has the ability to slow a game down by catching and freezing pucks. Often times he simply redirects shots out of play with a simple tilt of the blocker. In listening to former defenseman, it is much more settling to play in front of a goalie that controls his rebounds and the pace of the game.

This being said, Reimer has proven he can do what’s most important and that’s win. But he’s also shown he runs cold. We’ll never really be sure if that can be attributed to injuries, mainly to the head area, or a broken belief in himself thanks to a lack of faith shown by the team. However, this raises another set of questions concerning durability, which in fairness can be asked of both goalkeepers. Comparing either of these guys to the starring roles of Stallone’s masterpiece could be a stretch. As the script reads, both those men were world champions. Neither have been a bona-fide number for any significant amount of time.

I think when assessing the situation from last year, it would serve us well to look at the referee for that bout, Randy Carlyle. A lot has been made of the tension between the coach and the Manitoba born Reimer. There was the goalie’s shaking of his head and death stare at the coach when he was yanked on one particular night. And who could forget “just okay”. Was number 34 being given the same rope as Bernier? Did Leafs brass have a preference or were the judges essentially paid off in this match? James Reimer had been pulled five times prior to December 22nd of the 2013/14 season to Bernier’s none. It’s my thought that circumstances dictated the majority of those decisions. The early gifts and the type of goals that were being allowed sent Reimer to the showers early on those nights. Bernier though, was allowed to work through his mistakes. This left many wondering if the fix was in.

Well, maybe it was. Leafs management were likely leaning towards Bernier a touch. Was that because they don’t like James Reimer or were unappreciative of what he’d done for the team? Of course not. The Leafs saw an opportunity to add to big piece to their team for a minimal price and they took it. Jonathan Bernier was a top flight goaltender coming into his draft year. He was dominant with the league champion Lewiston Maniacs of the QMJHL in 2006/07. He was spectacular with the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL, where in 2010 he was named most outstanding goaltender.

In a division with guys like Rask and Price, the Maple Leafs had to get someone who could carried a similar pre-NHL resume. They made a bold decision with their head, not their heart. My opinion hasn’t changed about Reimer from when he was at the top of his game until now. We can talk about Save Percentage or whatever else. There’s simply just more to it than that. In both developmental leagues Bernier has been in he’s separated himself as the best in his class. When was the last time James Reimer was the best goalie in his league? None of this is a slight on him. It’s just the truth as I see it.

Last year Bernier won the fight. That can’t be disputed. When he was injured Reimer was asked to come in and finish the match. What happened exactly, we aren’t quite sure? Had the Leafs been playing with fire too long and being horribly outplayed all year finally caught up to them? Did the Leafs mishandle the goalkeeper and did that affect his performance? Or was Reimer just not up to the task? When Bernier returned things didn’t go any better. Reimer, Bernier and the entire team were left lying on the canvas for the ten count. Some of the fans still haven’t gotten up.

Well it looks to me that both goalies have been on the heavy bag this summer. Bernier started slow but has regained his Apollo-like form. Reimer has come in raring to go and nothing proves it more than Saturday night. He provided us all with a very surreal moment as his name was chanted through the ACC after a spectacular 3rd period performance against the most dangerous group of forwards in the league.

Why do Leafs fans feel such a bond towards Reimer? That’s easy. You get the sense that there’s something special about him. He has an intangible quality that makes you cheer for him. Bernier, like Creed, may not be as likeable. He’s a well-oiled machine and he probably knows it. His skill set is elite.

Why do Leafs fans feel such a bond towards Reimer? That’s easy. You get the sense that there’s something special about him. He has an intangible quality that makes you cheer for him. Bernier, like Creed, may not be as likeable. He’s a well-oiled machine and he probably knows it. His skill set is elite. There’s no underdog to root for here. But personality traits don’t go into decisions like these. The better of the two should be given the net.

Rocky was a classic motion picture. I thought Rocky II was even better. The rematch, the pedigree versus the heart one more time. You know what? The real flick that gives me goose-bumps, the one that still gets me out of my chair….Rocky III. The key to success in that instalment was Rocky and Apollo working together. We don’t have to see Bernier and Reimer running on the beach, jumping up and down in slow motion, but Toronto has 18 back to back games this year. The Maple Leafs will need both men thriving and we saw a prime example of that this weekend.

It’s going to take both Reimer and Bernier for the Buds to make the post season this coming year. The goalies, along with the fan base need to come together strong. Do I have a preference in goaltenders? Sure I do. But it doesn’t matter. I want a fair fight this time around. No excuses this year. Let the best goalie win. But the hand being raised at the end of this rematch has to be the Toronto Maple Leafs themselves. The potential to be a formidable tandem is there. The Blue & White faithful should get behind both of these guys.

The bell has been rung for Round Two, and both men have come out swinging this past week. But the punches aren’t being thrown at each other. Bernier wiped the mat with “Glass Joe’s” Columbus and Buffalo, while James Reimer delivered a knockout blow to a powerful Blackhawk team Saturday night. At this point Carlyle and staff may as well gather in the office and flip a coin. We have two fighters capable of taking on the Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago types of the NHL.

Mickey would be proud.

 

 

 

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