Jonathan Bernier’s first game at Air Canada Centre in more than a week came in a different uniform than he was used to – the goalie was wearing a Toronto Marlies jersey instead of a more familiar Maple Leafs sweater – but his teammates made his return a relatively easy one Sunday, providing him with all sorts of support on offence in an 9-0 shutout victory over the visiting Manitoba Moose.
Bernier’s most recent game at the ACC came Nov. 28 in the Leafs’ 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals, and his struggles in that game and prior to it were behind his decision to accept a 10-day conditioning stint with the Marlies. But his play in two AHL games – including a 4-0 shutout of the Rochester Americans Friday night – is an indication his confidence is improving by the minute. And he was happy after the game to give credit to his Marlies teammates for playing so well in front of him.
“The last two games I’ve played, they’re playing tremendous out there,” said Bernier, who stopped 21 shots in the win and is expected to be in net for the Marlies’ next game Friday against Utica. “They backcheck really hard, they play the system, and that’s how you score goals usually, if you stick to the system.”
Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe said he’s been impressed by what he’s seen from Bernier and the rest of the team since the veteran NHL netminder joined the squad.
“I thought you saw a guy who was very confident in the net,” Keefe said of Bernier’s performance Sunday. “It’d be easy to look at both games and say he didn’t get a lot of work, but in Friday night’s game, especially in the second period, not a lot of pucks got to him, but…we got outplayed in (the second) period, but he was really good.
“Today, again, he didn’t get tested a whole lot, but he makes a huge save for us right off the first shot of the game. If that puck goes in, they get a little life, it could change the whole hockey game. He just looked very comfortable.”
The Marlies, now winners of two straight after snapping a two-game losing streak, took it to the Moose early, building a 3-0 lead in the first period on goals from Andrew Campbell, Rich Clune and Mark Arcobello while outshooting the visitors 12-7. The goals kept coming in the middle frame, with Casey Bailey scoring his third of the season and Brendan Leipsic adding his fifth of the year. Toronto also dominated possession in the second, keeping Manitoba from registering a shot on Bernier for nearly the first eight minutes of the period.
Toronto continued the offensive onslaught in the third: Josh Leivo, with his seventh goal of the season; Richard Panik, with his sixth of the year; William Nylander, with his team-leading 13th of the season; and Frederik Gauthier, with his third of the year, rounded out the scoring. And Keefe – whose team improved its record to 18-5-1-0 by winning their second of five games at the ACC this season – said this was the group he was seeing before Toronto dropped a pair of games in disappointing fashion to St. John’s last weekend.
“There was a big change in our team this weekend compared to last weekend,” Keefe said. “I think there’s a few different things that contribute to that, and I certainly would put Jonathan’s arrival as one of them. The whole mood of our team was very good, and guys rallied around his arrival here. And then his attitude and his approach in terms of being a good pro and bringing good energy to our team, it really helped us. I was happy to see our guys battle all the way to the end and play a good, solid, complete game for him, and then anytime we slipped up, he looked like an NHL goalie.”
With two straight shutouts, Bernier is looking forward to playing again for the Marlies, and eventually, the Leafs. To his credit, he’s been able to keep things in perspective and maintain a positive attitude his Marlies teammates appreciate.
“He’s brought happiness, just spreading some laughter throughout the team and trying to have fun,” Nylander said of Bernier. “He’s a great guy and guys love him, so it’s fun to have him here.”
Bernier feels the same.
“I wanted to be here and get my game back,” Bernier said, “and I’m happy to be here and win some games.”