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Mirtle: Leafs lean on shootout again, eke out win over Sabres

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson, left, reacts after Maple Leafs forward Nikolai Kulemin, right, celebrates his goal against the Buffalo Sabres during second period NHL action in Toronto on Wednesday, January 15, 2014.


This was not a night to remember for James Reimer.

There were three goals against from a Buffalo Sabres team with the weakest offence in the league, including an awkward tying marker that could have cost the Toronto  Maple Leafs a point if not for their sudden prowess in the skills competition.

But in a year when Toronto's goalies have bailed their teammates out so very often, it was the skaters turn to do the same on Wednesday, eking out a 4-3 win over the last-place Sabres by scoring on all three shootout attempts against Ryan Miller.

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It wasn't the type of performance that will win Reimer back the crease, not when Jonathan Bernier has had the greater confidence of the coaching staff and his play has been that much more consistent.

But it was a long-awaited, hard fought two points – Reimer's first W in nearly a month and only ninth of the year – and it pushed the Leafs' streak to three in a row.

A good place, after where they've been.

"The third goal I think rattled him a little bit," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said of Reimer's worst miscue, a play where a weak shot from Sabres centre Cody Hodgson at the side of the net somehow dribbled over the goalie's leg.

"There were a couple of dump-ins that went by him that I don't think he picked up until late. It showed. But he battled through and got us the win in the shootout."

On the Sabres first goal, Sabres fourth-liner Matt Ellis fired a quick cross-ice pass essentially right at the Leafs netminder and it found a way through.

The second – a Matt Moulson lazer beam that went in and out so quickly that Toronto management were checking the tape in the press box for several minutes trying to determine if it was really in – was a brilliant shot but one that came with Reimer giving up too much over his right shoulder.

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But Hodgson's was obviously the toughest, with Reimer simply not covering the near post enough.

It was another blown lead for Toronto in the third period, and given how well they limited Buffalo's chances, it was hard to blame anyone but the goalie.

"I still don't really know how it went in," Reimer said afterward. "I know my foot was against the post. That's my play; that's what I do. I do that every play, every time, and it's never gone in…

"Honestly, it's not a good goal, but at the same time, I would have played it the same again if it would have happened. It's one of those you just shake off and call bad luck and try and stop the next one."

Opportunity missed

Here's a good place for a quick digression on the Sabres: They're currently at the bottom of the standings in a league with some real basket cases this year, and while they've played better under new coach Ted Nolan, they've also won just 13 times and are on pace for a 57-point year in a league where the average is more than 90.

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As mentioned, their biggest weakness has been a lack of firepower, something that was amply evident on Wednesday with an inept power play and just how difficult they found the task of generating chances on the typically porous Toronto defence. (They still managed 30 shots in 65 minutes.)

Buffalo's 1.67 goals per game has them on track for just 137 over 82 games, the lowest scoring season ever in an NHL campaign where there was more than 70 games played.

This should have been a confidence builder for Reimer, in other words, with the Leafs three goals in the first two periods more than enough to win a rare game in regulation. Instead, it's been that kind of year for him, where the bounces – and starts – haven't gone his way nearly as often as last season.

Good night for kiddie corps

This was a good night for all of the Leafs other 25-and-unders.

Morgan Rielly scored his second of the year on a feed from Nazem Kadri, who logged more than 20 minutes.

Peter Holland picked up a key assist that showcased just why he should have a permanent home on one of the top three lines.

And Jake Gardiner settled in nicely on the first power play unit, a spot on the right point that he appears to have for the moment stolen away from Cody Franson.

After so much time in the wilderness and a free fall in the standings, Carlyle appears to be starting to trust his youngsters more than he has all year, including building both his third line and third defence pairing (Rielly-Gardiner) around three of the youngest five players on this team.

Holland, in particular, is emerging as a gem, as this was the second straight game he made something happen with two wingers – Nikolai Kulemin and David Clarkson – who've been in a season-long slumber.

He put the Leafs second goal on a tee for Kulemin using a nice dipsy-doodle move that threw off the Sabres defence, the type of finesse play that the veteran he replaced – Jay McClement – wouldn't have attempted.

(Speaking of which, McClement's ice time was down to just 7:07 on the night, his lowest total since joining the Leafs at the start of last season.)

Up against Buffalo or not, those were the biggest positives for a team that will need more from its youth the rest of the way.

Goalie glut lowers Reimer's value

While there have been trade rumours around young players like Kadri and Gardiner the past few weeks, things have been relatively quiet on Reimer so far, with Leafs management saying to date that they want to keep the tandem intact all year.

Part of the problem is that there is an abundance of solid young goaltenders available right now, and the value coming back when they are moved isn't there. The Edmonton Oilers, for one, dealt only a third-round pick to the Los Angeles Kings for former Leaf Ben Scrivens on Wednesday, which still leaves three teams – Anaheim, Carolina and Washington – with a three-goalie situation that they're looking to clarify.

That's a lot of supply and not nearly as much demand. So while Reimer can likely fetch a little more than Scrivens, given his career numbers and starts, the return won't be overwhelming.

But whatever value he does have isn't going up with performances like this one, where Toronto could have avoided overtime and the shootout with one more key save from its netminder.

It's certainly true that playing so little of late has likely hurt Reimer's confidence and left him a little rusty, as he hasn't been nearly as sharp as he was last season and in the 2013 playoffs.

But with only 33 games left in the season, time is also running out to make an impression, and the sense continues to be that Bernier will get every opportunity to play.

It's been gradually happening all year, but Reimer now appears to be the goalie on the outside looking in more than ever. He'll need to be better to win back the net, and there may not be that many more chances to even try.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More


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