For a lot of teams, losing your No. 1 goalie to injury during the season's stretch run could prove disastrous. But with veteran Jonathan Bernier as an ever-reliable alternative, the Ducks have not only stayed afloat but have played some of their best hockey of the season.
Bernier has started all but one game since John Gibson went down with a lower body injury in mid-February, and the 28-year-old who came to Anaheim last summer has flourished. He has won eight of his last nine starts while posting a gaudy 1.64 goals against average, and he's been one of the reasons the Ducks have been blazing hot as they face the regular season's final stretch.
"There are a lot of factors, but I think the biggest one is getting the opportunity to play more," says the soft-spoken Bernier, who served mostly as Gibson's backup and only played 21 games before the injury. "You build momentum in your game and confidence, and that is a big part of it. Obviously we've been playing really well as a team, so that's another big factor."
Bernier also credits the confidence he's developed with consistent game action, a trait that is invaluable to a goaltender. "It kind of sounds weird, but it just kind of seems like you almost see the play before it happens," he says of feeling that self-assurance. "And you're able to find the puck, even through a screen, to make sure you're picking the right side. All those little details make your game a lot easier, and makes you feel better as a goalie."
The confidence wasn't always there for Bernier during some turbulent years in Toronto, where he played three seasons after starting his career with the Kings, who drafted him 11th overall in 2006. Last season was one of the toughest, when Bernier struggled with injuries on a Leafs team that had the league's worst record. Bernier, a native of Laval, Quebec, hoped to stay in Toronto. But the writing was on the wall when the Leafs acquired former Ducks netminder Frederik Andersen, and he was traded to Anaheim on July 8.
"Guys really welcomed me here," says Bernier of Anaheim, where he was reunited with former Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. "I think mentally it was really tough what happened last year to me, and I came into the summer and had a really good summer. I wanted to come in here right from the get go and have a good preseason. That's when it leads up to playing well and getting that confidence back up. I felt really good right off the bat, to be honest."
That summer was helped by some collaboration with new Ducks goalie coach Sudarshan Maharaj, who worked with Bernier near his home in the Montreal area to polish his skills in the crease - not to mention his mental outlook.
"Sometimes the fact that goalies are people gets lost," Maharaj told the Orange County Register earlier this season. "And I'm a firm believer that - and I say it all the time - I don't coach goalies. I coach people. When you go through a situation like he was in in Toronto, where there was some difficult times and there's criticism, that wears on you and it beats on you.
"In order for a goalie or any athlete to have success, that core confidence has to remain intact. When that gets battered, it's something that you have to continually reinforce."
Bernier certainly faces a friendlier environment in Orange County, where he says, "It's just easier to focus on your own game. It's just easier here to forget about hockey when you're not at the rink.
"But you know what? I had a blast in Toronto. It was fun, and obviously I had some ups and downs, but overall it was a great experience. I learned a lot about myself, and I grew as a person by playing in a big market. I'm excited to be here, obviously, and just focusing on hockey and not really worrying about what's going on out there."
That's not to say it's all been perfect for Bernier this season, whose travails have included a rough night in Calgary in early December in which he surrendered eight goals. But he says it's the way you bounce back from nights like that - or goals on shots you'd like to have back - that proves your worth as a netminder.
"You can't be on your A game all the time, and as a goalie, you've always got to forget about things," says Bernier, whose next game after that Calgary loss was a 22-save win over rival San Jose. "Doesn't matter if it's a great goal or a bad goal, you've got to move on.
"I've tried to just focus on the process and go shot by shot and not worry about the end result. That's been the key for me as of late. I'm not focusing on winning, I'm just focusing on my own job. You can't really look at the past. You have to stay in the present."
At present, Bernier is Anaheim's guy in the crease, with Gibson's return uncertain. He tested the injury in a March 10 game at St. Louis, only to give up four goals in defeat and go on the shelf gain. Gibson has been taking part in on-ice workouts as of late and could possibly return to the lineup on this four-game road trip.
But for the time being, it's Bernier's time to shine and he's thriving in it. "The fun is back," he says with a slight grin. "I'm enjoying my time right now. It's been awhile now where I'm excited to come to the rink. Obviously last year was tough, but I've been excited all year, to be honest. It's exciting to play in front of a good group of guys. We have a pretty tight group, so it's been a lot of fun."