TORONTO - Default is the sweetest word to Jonathan Bernier.
Injuries ? first to James Reimer and now Garret Sparks ? ensured that Bernier is back as the Toronto Maple Leafs' No. 1 goaltender. He'll start against the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night.
"There's no decision: Bernie's going, and a good opportunity for Bernie," coach Mike Babcock said. "When your boss tells you, you can't, you think you can and when you get your opportunity, you've got to do something with it."
Bernier is winless in this season, and his .883 save percentage is third-worst in the NHL among goalies with at least 10 games played. He's 0-8-3 in 11 appearances with a 3.46 goals-against average that's also near the bottom of the league.
Babcock thought so little of the struggling Bernier that Sparks, a rookie called up from the AHL, started Thursday against San Jose. Only a first-period injury to Sparks, which Babcock said will keep the 22-year-old out through at least Christmas, gave Bernier the top job back.
"I feel when Mike has given me the chance, I just want to go in the right direction," Bernier said. "Obviously I haven't got any wins, but I felt like (Thursday) night was another step in the right direction."
Bernier was good in relief Thursday, stopping 24 of the 27 shots he faced in the 5-4 overtime loss to the Sharks, and caught a bad break on the winning goal when the puck went in off teammate Peter Holland's shin pad. He wants to take "baby steps" in getting his confidence back and his game back together, and that was progress.
Now Bernier has the chance to play a lot of games, including at least two of the next three against the Kings, his former team, and then at the Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes. Antoine Bibeau will be called up to back up Bernier on Saturday, but the Leafs know this is Bernier's time.
"He's back in the net now and he's playing his old team here this weekend, so I'm sure he's going to be on his game and hopefully we can get a win for him," centre Tyler Bozak said.
"Win one for Bernier" isn't quite a rallying cry, but after the Leafs broke down in front of him Thursday it's their aim to be better moving forward. Bernier has handled his struggles and being sent to the minors on a conditioning loan in a professional, businesslike way, and now teammates want to reward him.
"We fully support Bernie," captain Dion Phaneuf said. "We're going to get one for Bernie here, and then we'll turn it around for him."
It's also up to Bernier to turn it around for himself. The 27-year-old from Laval, Que., said technical aspects of his game like his depth and angles were better against the Sharks, and something he can build on.
Bernier said he'd focus more on his game than facing the Kings, the team that drafted and traded him. But stacking up against Jonathan Quick wouldn't be a bad source of motivation.
Anything different might help Bernier, who feels the love within the Leafs' locker-room from guys who appreciate his calm demeanour.
"You can't get down on yourself," Bozak said. "You play your best whenever you're confident. You can't sit there and feel sorry for yourself when things don't go right, and he definitely doesn't do that. He comes to work and gives it his all."
Notes - Babcock said defenceman Martin Marincin will be back in the lineup against the Kings, replacing Frankie Corrado. ??? In addition to Sparks, forward Nick Spaling will be out through at least Christmas, according to Babcock.
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