In a season where little has gone his way, it took Jonathan Bernier
playing his former team – the Los Angeles Kings – to record his first win of the season. The Maple Leafs goalie stopped all 26 shots he faced Saturday to lead the Buds to a 5-0 win over L.A. – and on a night when there was no shortage of feel-good stories for Toronto, Bernier’s performance stood out as especially meaningful to his teammates and coaches.
“He should feel proud, feel good about himself,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said of Bernier, who has now earned the Leafs four points in his past three appearances. “I’m real proud of him, I’m proud of (goaltending coach) Stevie (Briere) and the process (Bernier has) gone through and the way he’s stuck with it. It would be easy just to give up on yourself, obviously he didn’t, and it couldn’t have been a better night with L.A. in town. The whole team is thrilled for him, I’m thrilled for him.”
“He’s been battling hard for us,” forward Byron Froese said of Bernier. “He’s made big saves for us throughout the season, and sometimes we’ve let him down, so tonight was a good night to have his back.”
Bernier got help on offense from teammates Michael Grabner – the hard-luck winger who scored his third and fourth goals of the season, Leo Komarov (who netted his team-leading 12th and 13th goals of the year) and Froese (who scored the first NHL goal of his career). And although the 27-year-old netminder’s teammates and coaching staff loved seeing him rewarded for his perseverance and hard work – battling through injuries, an AHL conditioning stint and a lack of consistency – Bernier was happy to deflect the praise right back at them.
“I’ve had a tough time, but I’ve been saying it – if you stick to the plan and work hard, at one point you’ll get rewarded,” Bernier said. “Tonight I felt really good, but at the same time, the guys really played well. That’s not an easy team but we came out, we battled and we played a tight game.”
Babcock has witnessed Bernier fight through the tough times – including watching Marlies goalie and NHL rookie Garret Sparks bypass him on the depth chart before getting injured Thursday against San Jose and opening up an opportunity for the veteran – which is why he was elated to watch Bernier finally break through with a well-deserved victory.
“It hadn’t gone as good for Bernie, (and) it’s got to be unbelievably hard on you mentally,” Babcock said. “You get put through the ringer, he’s been down in the minors, watched Sparks play ahead of him. I mean, that’s not easy. I don’t care what walk of life you’re in or what you do, when someone takes your shift, takes your job, takes your position, it’s hard for you and you’ve got to decide why you play the game. You play the game because you love it, you play the game because of the joy. And when the joy leaves you and you’re not enjoying it anymore, it’s hard to be as good as you’re capable of being.”
The Leafs have eight points in their past five games and now embark on a three-game road trip that takes them to Colorado, Arizona and Brooklyn next week, and their confidence appears to be at a season high. Beating one of the league’s best teams will do that – but watching a teammate earn some good news will definitely perk up the room.
“Confidence is what you earn yourself, and as soon as you feel good about yourself, the coach does,” Babcock said. “I’ve got to give (Bernier) a ton of credit – it’s gone bad for him. Tonight I thought he was excellent, really good. I think the other thing that happens to you in life is when things go real bad for you, you start thinking everyone’s against you, when, let’s be honest, it’s way better for us if he’s good. We’re all pulling for him like crazy, so I think it’s great that it happened."