It will be James Reimer or elimination for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Head coach Randy Carlyle said the injury suffered by No. 1 goaltender Jonathan Bernier in the third period of Thursday's 4-3 overtime win over the Boston Bruins was diagnosed as a strained medial collateral ligament. He will be out for at least three weeks, which means Reimer must now come out of hockey purgatory to be the Leafs' goaltender of record over the last four games of the regular season.
The Leafs' slim NHL playoff hopes rest on Reimer's ability to shake off the nightmarish stretch in mid-March when he filled in during Bernier's previous injury, a groin strain, and lost his confidence. Reimer gave up the tying goal to the Bruins the other night when he was forced to come in cold and face the Boston power play but he did manage to hold the Leafs in the game until Nazem Kadri, another player in Carlyle's doghouse, scored to win it in overtime.
"It's the same as it was yesterday," Carlyle said after Friday's practice when asked if this changed the Leafs' playoff situation. "These are all games that are of vital importance to our hockey club and the most important game of the season is [Saturday]."
The Leafs' situation is that they are in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with 84 points, one behind the Columbus Blue Jackets, who hold the last wild-card playoff spot and have two games in hand. On Saturday, the Leafs play the Winnipeg Jets, a non-playoff team, at the Air Canada Centre and then face a two-game road trip to Florida, meeting the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday and the Florida Panthers on Thursday. They finish the regular season on April 12 in Ottawa against the Senators. The only playoff-bound opponent the Leafs will face in those games is the Lightning.
The Jets are as close to a hometown team as Reimer has but the native of Morweena, Man., was lit up by the Jets on Jan. 25, giving up four goals on 19 shots before he was yanked.
"It's always fun playing that team, where they're from," Reimer said, dismissing any notion of being gun-shy. "It's fun playing in that scenario.
"It will be good to come again [Saturday]. It doesn't really matter what's going on around the rink. It's the two points we need tomorrow. We've got to be pretty focused."
The Leafs' injury problems don't stop with Reimer. Forward Joffrey Lupul, who was a surprise scratch against the Bruins, is officially day-to-day with an undisclosed injury but is not expected to play against the Jets.
Forwards James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel did not practice Friday but Carlyle said they were off for a "maintenance day."
Drew MacIntyre will be called up from the Leafs' farm team, the Toronto Marlies, for the rest of the season. Since the Marlies were in Utica, N.Y., yesterday for an American Hockey League game, the Leafs called upon Ryerson University goalie Troy Passingham to fill in at practice.