-- Tending goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs
can be a lonely, criticism-filled existence when the fabled club has managed only two wins in its last seven games.
Goalie - TOR
GAA: 3.00 | SVP: 0.899
But Leafs netminder James Reimer
can expect to see at least a few friendly faces back in his home province of Manitoba when he meets his family for dinner on Friday night before he heads back to the team hotel to rest up for the Leafs' Saturday night clash with the Winnipeg Jets
at the MTS Centre. Reimer has purchased 15 tickets to the game for family and friends, and they will see him start in net for the Leafs in his Winnipeg debut as an NHL goaltender.
The affable 23-year-old grew up in Morweena, Man., a small community approximately 90 minutes north of Winnipeg. He has played in Winnipeg as a Leafs' American League farmhand with the Toronto Marlies. But being on the NHL stage now means that Reimer and the Leafs are trying to scrounge additional tickets for the game, though the Leafs-Jets New Year's Eve game is one of the most elusive tickets in Winnipeg this season.
"Winnipeg, Manitoba is home," Reimer said after the Leafs conducted an afternoon practice on Friday. "I've always enjoyed coming back here when I was in the AHL. It's always a lot of fun and a great atmosphere. I can't imagine what the atmosphere is going to be like [Saturday] night."
Whether Manitoba's friendly side will endure when the Leafs meet the Jets remains to be seen. Winnipeg fans have developed a reputation for hostile greetings toward visiting goaltenders at the MTS Centre. Reimer's cheerful demeanor and provincial roots may test those unwelcoming tendencies, however.
Reimer's return to Manitoba comes at a difficult time for the Leafs, who have 41 points and occupy eighth place in the Eastern Conference in a three-way tie with the seventh-place Jets and sixth-place New Jersey Devils
. The Leafs have dropped two consecutive games on their current four-game trip. Thursday night's loss to the Hurricanes saw the Leafs surrender a 3-1 lead in the third period and lose 4-3 in overtime to Carolina team that sits in 14th place in the Eastern Conference and is scrambling to salvage its season.
After a storybook NHL rookie season, Reimer's second NHL campaign has been a bit more bumpy. In an injury-plagued campaign so far, Reimer has gone 7-3-4 in 16 games with the Leafs, compiling a 3.00 goals-against average and .899 save percentage in a platoon with Jonas Gustavsson
But since returning this month from an injury he sustained in October, Reimer has struggled. In his 10 games in December, he allowed three or more goals seven times. The Florida Panthers
knocked him out of Tuesday's loss, beating him three times on eight shots. Thursday did not provide Reimer the sort of bounce-back that he and coach Ron Wilson had hoped for, either.
"You use it as motivation," Reimer said of his recent struggles.
While Leafs coach Ron Wilson could have opted to start Gustavsson, given Reimer's subpar play of late, Wilson believes that starting Reimer in Winnipeg might help to jumpstart his play and believes that it would not be fair to deny his goaltender a start in front of family and friends.
"He's got a reason to have his best game," Wilson explained of his decision.
But Reimer does not expect Wilson to pamper him during difficult times.
"He has every right to pump my tires or deflate them," Reimer said of his coach, "whatever he feels is necessary."
Reimer's start in Winnipeg will also come one day before the one-year anniversary of his first NHL start. In that game he held the Ottawa Senators
to one goal in kicking off his NHL career with four wins in his first five starts. Reimer went on to his establish himself as an NHL goaltender, then earned a roster spot with Team Canada in the 2011 World Hockey Championship. He capped his season by signing a new three-year contract with the Leafs.
"Whirlwind," Reimer replied when asked how he would term his 2011 calendar year. "It has been a pretty exciting year. I can't believe all that has taken place in one year. It has been an interesting year. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure how to describe it."
Reimer will not be able to revive his season in one night, but a key meeting with the Jets on the stage that Hockey Night in Canada provides should add another memory to his NHL collection.
"I used to be one of them in the stands," Reimer said of Winnipeg hockey fans. "It's a great hockey city. They're well-educated. They love the game. It's fun to come back here and play. It's great to have family here. They're obviously all stoked for the new Jets, and they love the team."