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Bernier hoping to lead Maple Leafs back to playoffs

by Tal Pinchevsky continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

Despite setting career highs in games, wins and saves in his first season with the Toronto Maple Leafs after five with the Los Angeles Kings, goalie Jonathan Bernier knows how his 2013-14 campaign will mostly be remembered.

He struggled with injuries late in the season and Toronto lost 12 of its final 14 games to fall out of the race for a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"We've just got to learn from it, move on. I think as a group we'll be stronger with the way we ended our season," Bernier said. "I think I was a lot more tired at the beginning of the season. [In Los Angeles], I wasn't playing that many games. But it was really good to get back in that game mode."

Bernier had good reason to be tired. Despite his injuries, the 1,787 shots he faced ranked seventh in the League. He finished the season 26-19-7 with a .923 save percentage and a 2.68 goals against average.

Playing behind a roster that allowed an NHL-worst 35.9 shots per game, the highest team average in 21 years, Bernier made 40 or more saves 10 times in 55 games. Toronto's collapse began immediately after Bernier sustained a leg injury against his former team March 13, but his play had already slipped a little from the high standard he set earlier in the season.

From the end of the break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics until the end of the season, backup James Reimer actually had a better save percentage (.909) than Bernier (.904) in nearly the same amount of minutes played.

When Brendan Shanahan took over as Toronto's president and reconfigured the Maple Leafs front office and coaching staff, he did so with the intention of decreasing the number of shots the team allowed. Bernier is welcoming that change.

"Coming from a team in L.A. where you get 20 shots a game almost average, that's how you win. You might get away [with it] in the season, but once you get close to the playoffs and get in the playoffs, you definitely have to play better defensively," Bernier said. "It's something we all know we need to be better at. But I think with the new players, I think we'll definitely be a stronger team."

Toronto added a number of players this offseason, but Bernier is most anticipating the arrival of Roman Polak and Stephane Robidas, veteran defensemen he believes can strengthen the Maple Leafs blue line.

Their presence won't be the only welcome change for Bernier. For the first time in his career, he will enter the season with an inside track on the starting goaltending spot. After years of battling Jonathan Quick for playing time in Los Angeles before engaging in a goaltending competition with Reimer last season, the starting job should be Bernier's to lose.

"He earned the opportunity to get the start and you cannot dispute that his record speaks for itself," Toronto coach Randy Carlyle said. "[Bernier] is a guy who came in here and provided a real steadying influence in the net for us, but again we always have went along the lines of you're going to need two capable NHL goaltenders to have success. Both of them are going to have to win the net."

Even with the Maple Leafs out of the playoffs, Bernier still got to experience a postseason atmosphere in Toronto. A basketball fan since his days in Los Angeles, Bernier dove head first into the mania surrounding the Toronto Raptors' first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets in the NBA Playoffs. Although he had to miss the deciding seventh game, he was a fixture at the series, even attending games in Brooklyn and getting to meet team ambassador/rap superstar Drake.

Despite his former Kings teammates making a run to another Stanley Cup title, Bernier wasn't watching playoff hockey. He was all about Toronto basketball. And even though the Raptors lost 104-103 to Brooklyn in Game 7, Bernier was impressed by how fans embraced the team during the playoffs.

He's hoping to see the same for the Maple Leafs this season.

"When the Raptors got into the playoffs, it was a different vibe. Everyone was talking about it. All the Raptors fans were pretty excited about it," Bernier said. "You get really excited and you wish that was ice instead of the court and you'd be on the ice. That just gets you that extra motivation when you see that excitement in the city."

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