TORONTO – It is said hockey is a team sport. But enormous individual performances are often necessary for victory and if you don't have good goaltending, you rarely get too far in the playoffs.
Thus far, James Reimer has been providing the Toronto Maple Leafs with quality goaltending in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs -- good enough that an organization which has not been in the postseason for nine years suddenly finds itself in a Game 7 in the opening round.
Thanks to a 2-1 victory against the Boston Bruins at Air Canada Centre on Sunday night, the Maple Leafs have a date with the Bruins in Boston on Monday in a winner-take-all showdown at TD Garden. The victor advances to the second round against the winner of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal matchup between Washington Capitals and New York Rangers, which also features a seventh game Monday.
Reimer's performance in Game 7 will have a lot to say with his team's ability to move forward this season. In fact, it might even have an international impact.
After Reimer made 29 saves in the Toronto Maple Leafs breathtaking 2-1 victory against the Bruins on Sunday, the last goaltender to lead Canada to an Olympic gold medal chimed in.
Roberto Luongo, using his Twitter account (@strombone1), posted the following: #REIMS4SOCHI.
Of course, it has not yet been decided if there will be NHL participation at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Thus, Reimer may or may not represent Canada at that event but one thing is for certain -- he will play the biggest hockey game of his career Monday night in Boston.
Reimer is not a player who gets overly emotional by flattery. So while Luongo's passionate tweet might make other recipients downright giddy, the Maple Leafs' smiling stopper instantly keeps things in perspective.
"He becomes a friend right away," Reimer joked. "I know Louie is a heck of a goalie and he has done a lot in this League and for the game. Obviously, that is a nice comment coming from him; a little flattery I guess."
Reimer finds himself front-and-center in a series that now comes down to one game. The teams split the first two games in Boston, but the Bruins swept the Maple Leafs in Games 3 and 4 in Toronto. In a series where momentum has not surfaced, the Maple Leafs then won Game 5 in Boston and 6 in Toronto.
Through it all, Reimer has been very good in this series. Great? Well, one could debate that. He doesn't handle the puck well even when he's not under pressure and rebounds continue to be his Achilles heel. What matters most at this point, though, is the fact he has his team one game away from advancing to the second round. On top of that, his teammates believe in him, and that counts for a lot.
Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf got his NHL start in Calgary, where Miikka Kiprusoff provided the Flames with stellar goaltending. Using Kiprusoff as a comparable, Phaneuf has been impressed with what he is seeing in this year's playoffs from Reimer.
"I obviously had the great opportunity to play with a great goalie in Kipper for a lot of years and Reims is giving us a chance to win hockey games," Phaneuf said. "The saves that he is making are big-time saves and he looks very confident and calm. That feeds our team. I can't say enough good things about how solid he has played."
Reimer's two best saves in the playoffs have come off the same Bruins player: Patrice Bergeron. The Bruins' best all-around forward has just one point – a goal – in six games, but has been stymied by Reimer in each of the past two contests.
In Game 5, he swept the puck in front of the Toronto net and appeared to have an open net, but Reimer did the splits and stopped him with the toe of his skate. In Game 6, Reimer appeared to be down and out as Bergeron attempted a wraparound, but this time the Maple Leafs' stopper dove back to prevent a goal.
Obviously, Reimer has Bergeron's number.
"Haha," Reimer chuckled. "Both (saves) were pretty lucky. On this one, I got kind of lucky scrambling around my net and the only thing I could do was dive back. Luckily enough, he didn't tuck it. He's a good player and I was just lucky enough to get my stick over there. He's a good player and we try to eliminate his opportunities because he'll bury them."
Reimer is riding on a high. When the game ended he was interviewed on the ice, much to the delight of a cheering audience and he made sure to thank the fans who cheered him so loudly. At the same time, he knows he has to stay in the moment and not get too far ahead of himself. It was a game win, not a series win.
"It's a special situation," Reimer said. "For sure, it's one of those memories you'll look back on when this is all over. Right now, the fans have been unreal and the reception was unbelievable. But, we're focusing on [Monday] and not on how this one feels.
"We have to unwind from this one and go over what we did good and bad and then go to sleep and hopefully have a good night. We have to put this one behind us, because it's not going to do us any good Monday. They're going to come out firing. It has been a battle every game, and I expect it to be the same tomorrow."
Even if the Maple Leafs fall short in Game 7, one has to believe it will be an experience that Reimer, 25, can only benefit from in the long run.
"Yeah, definitely," Reimer said. "I mean, there's your first NHL game … your first consecutive NHL starts … your first whatever. Whenever there's a first, you're always learning. The more games you can play in different situations; the more you can develop. This has been great for my development, and I just hope I can keep on learning."
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