MONTREAL -- Round one goes to James Reimer.
The battle for the Toronto Maple Leafs' starting goaltending job that will be a topic of conversation all season long has its first chapter Tuesday night, and the incumbent Reimer was tabbed as coach Randy Carlyle's choice over newcomer Jonathan Bernier to face the Montreal Canadiens in the season opener (7 p.m. ET, CBC, RDS).
And while the competition is something Reimer acknowledged being in the back of his mind, he made it clear it was not at the forefront.
"Maybe it's a little bit back there, but when it comes down to game time you're worrying about your teammates, you're worrying about playing the best for them and not necessarily keeping your job," Reimer said. "You want to keep it and you want to stay there, but it's about winning and about playing your best for the guy across the room and not competing with the guy."
Nine months earlier, Reimer sat as the backup at Bell Centre as the Maple Leafs opened the shortened season with a 2-1 win against the Canadiens with Ben Scrivens in goal. Now it is Bernier who will be sitting and watching Reimer, and the native of suburban Laval, Quebec, didn't hide his disappointment at missing an opportunity for his second career start in his hometown and his first since Nov. 10, 2010.
Considering the Maple Leafs play in Philadelphia against the Flyers on Wednesday, making it very likely Bernier will start there, the decision to give Reimer the start in Montreal could be seen as even more disheartening to Bernier.
But he was taking things in stride Tuesday morning.
"Of course I'm a bit disappointed, but at the end of the day it's a very long season and we're in the same division, so I imagine I'll have a chance to play in Montreal and to play in front of my family," Bernier said. "But I can't control that. It's the decision of the coaching staff and I'm 100 percent on board. I'll accept whatever they ask me to do and when they ask me to play I'll do my best."
The offseason acquisition of Bernier from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for forward Matt Frattin and Scrivens made it clear the Maple Leafs organization felt it needed an upgrade in goal, even though Reimer's performance was a big reason why Toronto was able to snap a nine-year Stanley Cup Playoff drought last season.
Reimer's .924 save percentage put him eighth in the NHL, in a virtual tie with Vezina Trophy finalist Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks (Reimer's actual save percentage was .9236, while Niemi's was .9238). But Bernier had a .922 save percentage for the Kings playing behind Jonathan Quick, and after years in that unenviable position Bernier suddenly finds himself competing with another young goalie for the net in Toronto.
"I think it can work," Bernier said. "I don't know if it can over the very long term, but to decide who will be the goalie for the future it makes for a very good competition. You can have a lot of highs and lows over a season, so that's why it's good to have two guys competing against each other."
Throughout the summer, the debate raged as to who would claim the bulk of the workload in the Toronto net, with many assuming it would naturally be Bernier considering how aggressively the Maple Leafs went after him.
But with his decision to start Reimer on Tuesday, Carlyle made it clear the competition is wide open.
"I think what happens when you put people in competitive situations to earn the opportunity, it brings the best out of both parties," Carlyle said. "One thing we can say is we're very comfortable having a 1A/1B scenario. Who that 1A and 1B is, I can't give you an answer right now."
One thing's for sure, it's a question Maple Leafs fans are likely to be asking nearly every day until the end of the season.
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