TORONTO – Hunched back in his dressing room stall James Reimer appeared as you would rarely see him. Shoulders slumped. Arms folded. A piercing stare of anger gripping his face.
“Just feeling like you let down the team,” he told TSN.ca on Saturday evening, following a 5-4 shootout loss to the Penguins at the Air Canada Centre, a defeat which snapped a personal six-game win streak.
Reimer had a difficult night in the Toronto crease, four goals escaping him on the first 25 shots, three of which were direct consequences of his struggles with the puck. He battled in spirited fashion though, stopping all 13 shots in the third frame as his team rallied to knot the score at four, the 24-year-old adding three more crucial stops in overtime. But faced with his first shootout of the season and one last shot at self-perceived redemption, Reimer could not get the job done. James Neal and Sidney Crosby scored to ice the Pittsburgh victory.
“There's games where you don't play well,” he continued, his emotions raw after the loss, “and sometimes you don't get a chance to be the difference and it's frustrating and it sucks, but you move on and you be better the next day. And tonight's double because you had a chance to redeem yourself and you didn't. It's like a double letdown I guess you could say.”
And while he took note of a valiant effort in the third period and overtime – including a memorable stop on Crosby in the final minute – it was clear the disappointment of not finishing the job stung.
“That's what I pride myself on,” he said. “Sometimes things don't go your way, but you're able to battle and battle back and give them a chance to win or give them a chance to get a point. And then when you get that chance to give them the win I'd like to think or expect myself to be that guy that can step up and make those saves in the shootout and try and get a win. I gave them a chance to get back in the game and get a point, but I had a chance to win it in the shootout. That's what's so frustrating.”
1. Reimer's fight
Reimer had strung together six consecutive wins before he was defeated on Saturday.
“I think that James Reimer fought the puck in a few situations where the puck was bouncing away from him,” Randy Carlyle said. “He wasn't catching the puck effectively early in the game and I thought he got a lot better, made some big stops late in the hockey game for us.”
Three of the four goals he allowed were of his own making; markers from Crosby and Paul Martin the result of poor rebound control, the fourth goal from Pascal Dupuis a misplay on a back-hand from behind the goal. Neal then squeaked a puck five-hole in the shootout followed by Crosby's winner.
“Our goalie didn't look comfortable in the shootout either,” Carlyle added.
2. Incomplete efforts
Even though his team fell in Boston two nights earlier, Carlyle was quite proud of the effort his group managed to give opposite a member of the Eastern elite.
“Our goal and our challenge right now is to get this hockey club to play similar to the way we did in Boston,” said Carlyle before the shootout loss to Pittsburgh. “We lost that hockey game, but we played very well … No excuse not having that tonight.”
And while they finished strong against the Penguins, Saturday evening was not a complete effort. The Leafs were on their heels for the near-entirety of the opening period, Pittsburgh outshooting the home side 13-5 and emerging with a 3-1 lead.
“I think our team decided we were going to change the way we were playing because it was going to be a real long night if we didn't,” said Carlyle, noting his team's struggles at even-strength.
“Twenty minutes we weren't playing the way that we need to play and for 40 minutes we pushed the pace and we played that up-tempo game that we have to play,” Dion Phaneuf told TSN.ca after a 29-minute, three assist performance. “And you could see the totally different results. The biggest thing is we just didn't start well enough.”
It's a common refrain to search for the 60-minute effort, but the Leafs have eked out victories – Ottawa and New Jersey most recently – in spite of it, a habit Carlyle would like eliminated as best possible. “In the NHL you have to play 60 minutes to win and we've been fortunate to only have to 40 or 20 or whatever number you want to describe,” added Carlyle. “And that has to change for us.”
3. Matchup issues
No team in the National Hockey League offers the matchup challenge the Penguins impose with the one-two combination of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Carlyle's early strategy looked as follows:
Matchup 1: Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, Dion Phaneuf, Korbinian Holzer versus Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis.
Matchup 2: Mikhail Grabovski, Nik Kulemin, Jay McClement/Leo Komarov, Carl Gunnarsson, Mike Kostka versus Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Beau Bennett.
The matchups didn't work. Crosby's line scored twice in the first period, Malkin's adding the other as the Penguins went ahead 3-1.Carlyle explained his strategy for the initial matchups as more or less “Russian against Russian”. “Crazy as it seems that's what I do,” he said of the Grabovski taking on Malkin. “They usually have a lot of pride in competing against one another so that was my theory, but it didn't work very good early so I changed.”
Over the final 40 minutes, Carlyle shifted the Grabovski unit – joined by Phaneuf and Cody Franson, who replaced Holzer – opposite Crosby's line, moving the Kessel unit – joined by Gunnarsson and Kostka – against Malkin's equally imposing trio. A shaky goal from Dupuis was all that followed.
4. Franson/Holzer flip
Sensing the rising pressure his 25-year-old rookie defender was under, Carlyle removed Holzer from the top pairing after the first frame, replacing him with Franson.
“He looked a little bit overwhelmed by the speed tonight,” Carlyle said of Holzer, who played slightly less than 15 minutes. “Any young player's first exposure to those type of players, when you're up against Crosby and Malkin, there's a few wide-eyed people out there when they see them coming at them.”
Holzer had played only 15 minutes in the previous game against Boston, rejoining Mark Fraser – his partner with the Marlies – over the final two periods against Pittsburgh. With Jake Gardiner at or near the top of his game in the American League, it's worth wondering if and when a move is made.
5. Gunnarsson health update
Gunnarsson continues to make due with an ongoing hip issue, one he expects to linger all season.
“It's good,” he told TSN.ca before Saturday's game. “It's tough playing back-to-backs and all that, [but] it's actually been better than I thought. It's going in the right direction every day here. It's getting better actually.”
Gunnarsson missed eight games with the injury earlier this year, returning to the lineup in mid-February. Offered the metaphor of a bothersome pebble in the shoe as a comparison to his injury, the 26-year-old agreed, noting some nights where the pebble (or injury) is more like a big rock and thus more painful and other nights where the pebble is barely noticeable at all.
“Against Boston I didn't think about it,” he said. Gunnarsson logged 24-plus minutes against the Penguins.
Quote of the Night
“I gave them a chance to get back in the game and get a point, but I had a chance to win it in the shootout. That's what's so frustrating.”
-James Reimer, on his performance against the Penguins.
2-4-0: Reimer's record when facing 30 shots or more.
7-0-0: Reimer's record when facing 29 shots or fewer.
3: Assists for Dion Phaneuf, his highest total in a single game this season.
47-51 or 92%: Toronto penalty kill over the past 16 games, perfect in three chances against the Penguins.
84.3%: Toronto penalty kill this season, now tied for seventh overall.
7: Points for Phil Kessel over the past four games, including a three-point night (one goal, two assists) versus Pittsburgh.
12: Points for Clarke MacArthur in the past 11 games, including a two-point effort on Saturday.
14: Goals for James van Riemsdyk this season, tied for fifth best overall.
28:50: Dion Phaneuf, his second highest total of the season.
The Leafs head to Winnipeg for a Tuesday matchup with the Jets at MTS Centre.