|Los Angeles Kings rookie goaltender Jonathan Bernier was brilliant in his NHL debut.
On Saturday night, in the first game of the NHL Premiere Series, the organization struck it rich with Bernier far sooner than anyone expected. The 19-year-old, playing in his first NHL game, stopped 26 shots to stifle the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks and author a brilliant opening chapter to his NHL career with a 4-1 victory in the first NHL regular-season game played in Europe.
“Jonathan, you couldn’t have expected a better game from him,” Kings coach Marc Crawford said.
Crawford is the one who suggested the gold analogy when it comes to Bernier, one of the club’s most-prized prospects. But even he seemed surprised by how polished Bernier looked in his NHL debut.
“There was a lot of pressure on him tonight, and he looked like a real solid, solid goaltender,” Crawford said. “Not many pucks bounced off of him, and he made a couple of great saves.”
In fact, it was one of the few rebounds that ended up costing Bernier a shot at an even- more-memorable career-opening shutout.
With less than seven minutes left in the third period, Chris Pronger let loose with one of his patented slap shots from the point on an Anaheim power play. Bernier got in the way of that blast, just as he had the first 22 shots he faced from Anaheim’s high-octane attack. But the rebound squirted into the slot, and rookie Bobby Ryan pushed it home to ruin Bernier’s shutout bid.
Still, Bernier was all smiles after the game.
“It’s a great start,” he said. “We have been focusing on this game for a couple of weeks, and we came out of it with a win, so it’s a great start. I wasn’t that nervous. It’s the same game. I just kept my focus.”
Bernier says he’s not shocked to find himself in the limelight here in London. He wanted – and expected – to make the Kings’ roster. Starting their season-opener – and winning it – is not a shock to him.
“I came to camp and I was ready for it,” he said. “I just focused hard every practice and every game and just tried to get better.”
Bernier has been getting better for a long time now. Since May, he has led his junior team, the Lewiston Maineiacs, to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League title and a berth in the Memorial Cup and served as one of the three goalies on the Team Canada squad that went 7-0-1 against Team Russia in the recently-concluded Super Series.
That body of work carries great weight with his new teammates. In fact, it does the talking for a young player who is very economical with his words – especially when asked to talk about himself.
“We are all really excited about the way he played,” said Mike Cammalleri, who scored a pair of goals for the Kings in the win. “For a team to get goaltending like that is great. In talking to a couple of guys after the game, you discuss what went well, who played well and Army (teammate Derek Armstrong) said to me, ‘How about the goalie?’ He was the difference. He made a lot of great saves on shots that could have went in. A great game by him.”
How great? Good enough to give veteran defenseman Rob Blake an extra dose of confidence. Blake, 37, is the graybeard captain of the Kings. Bernier’s debut was Blake’s 1,057th NHL regular-season game. He has also played more than 100 Stanley Cup Playoff games and countless international appearances for Team Canada.
Yet he said it was Bernier who was providing his older teammates with the calmness and confidence necessary to face the defending champs on equal footing.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Blake said. “I think it is the calming effect he has on all of us. The way he plays is very calm. He stands in there and he doesn’t move too much. Pucks seem to hit him and he just swallows them up. That carries over. When (Anaheim) got that goal, they started coming at us pretty good and he just stopped two or three pucks and you could just see our bench calm down again.”
Then again, why would the Kings have expected anything less from their “golden” boy.