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Reimer's perseverance pays off with playoff spotlight

by Mike Brophy /

TORONTO – So you're sitting at your desk at work and every few minutes somebody walks past you and whispers, "They're going to replace you," or "You're not good enough."

You are working as hard as you can to be the best you can be, yet the taunts continue.

"They're looking for somebody better."

Welcome to James Reimer's world.

The 25-year-old goaltender for the Toronto Maple Leafs knows all about being taunted and second-guessed. When his team was on the verge of securing a Stanley Cup Playoff berth for the first time since 2004 -- largely because of his solid and consistent play -- you couldn't turn on the TV or radio or read a paper and not know the Maple Leafs were shopping for an upgrade between the pipes.

It was nearly a given that they would acquire a replacement for Reimer.

Would it be Roberto Luongo and his astronomical annual salary-cap hit that runs through the 2021-22 season? Would it be Miikka Kiprusoff, who has been a warhorse for the Calgary Flames seemingly forever? Or would it be another veteran whose name had not yet popped up in the press?

In the end, it was none of the above.

Toronto general manager Dave Nonis decided to stand pat with Reimer as the team's No. 1 goalie and Ben Scrivens as the backup. Yes, the Maple Leafs secured the elusive playoff spot and, barring an injury, Reimer will get his first taste of NHL postseason experience as the team's starter.

Through it all, Reimer came to work every day with a smile on his face; his attitude basically "what will be, will be." In fact, asked before the NHL Trade Deadline about the possibility of a veteran joining the Maple Leafs, Reimer said if it happens, he'll do his best to learn from his new teammate.

When he joined the Maple Leafs in 2010-11, he shared the crease with veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere and found that to be an enjoyable experience.

"It's the nature of the game," Reimer said. "It's an old cliché, but you really do have to take the good with the bad. I have an unbelievable opportunity here and I am so blessed to be able to play this game. I've been here for three seasons and I feel very blessed. As long as you stay grateful, it doesn't really matter what happens.

"You take every opportunity that comes your way to learn more about the position. I [had] the privilege to play with Jiggy and I learned so much from him. I don't think I would be having nearly the success I am having if it wasn't for him and everything I learned from him. If they had brought a more experienced goalie in here, then I would have been able to learn from him too. Obviously, I am glad they didn't and they have given me the opportunity to play, but you have to find a way to get better and stay happy."

Reimer is a work in progress. There are nights when it is evident he belongs in the NHL and looks quite at ease as a starter. There are other nights, however -- though fewer and further between this season -- when he battles the puck and allows goals on shots that look stoppable. He is not alone in that regard.

Reimer was picked No. 99 in the 2006 NHL Draft and took the long route to the League with stops in Reading and South Carolina in the ECHL and Toronto in the American Hockey League. When he played superbly in the second half of the season in 2010-11, constructing a 20-10-5 record with a respectable 2.60 goals-against average and .921 save percentage, there were many who felt the Maple Leafs had finally solved their goaltending crisis.

When he opened last season 4-0-1, fans felt they finally had their savior.

It wasn't to be.

In Toronto's sixth game of the season, late in the first period, Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta bumped into Reimer and the goalie had to leave the game. He practiced with the team a few days later, but couldn't shake the neck ache and headache that would keep him out of the lineup until Dec. 3. Reimer wound up 14-14-4 on the season and was not the goalie he had been prior to being bumped. He was (and remains) vulnerable on his trapper side and had trouble tracking pucks at times after making the initial save.

The Maple Leafs' response was to part with goalie coach Francois Allaire and replace him with Rick St. Croix. Reimer and Scrivens were disciples of Allaire, but the transition to St. Croix has been seamless.

"It has been good," Reimer said. "Frankie was a good friend of mine and I worked with him for three-plus years and he taught me a lot about what you have to do to be successful at this game. Management decided it would be good for me and the team to make a switch, and I have to respect that. Rick has been unbelievable. Rick is such a good resource.

"He doesn't try to change you. He has played the game and knows the game mentally. He just offers advice. There are certain things he likes to see, but basically he likes the way Scrivy and I play and he doesn't try to twist our game. I can't give you all the secrets, but he has been great."

This season, Reimer was 19-8-5. He ranked No. 21 in goals-against average (2.46) and eighth in save percentage (.924). The Maple Leafs are clearly a different team under coach Randy Carlyle, who replaced Ron Wilson late last season, in terms of their physical play and the support they offer one another in the defensive zone.

It isn't often Reimer is called upon to steal a game, as he did April 15 when the visiting New Jersey Devils outshot the Maple Leafs 32-13, including 16-5 through the first two periods. Reimer was at his best recording his third shutout of the season.

"We didn't really have our work boots on and we got out-competed, but our goaltender stole us a hockey game," Carlyle said. "He stopped the puck; that's what goalies are supposed to do."

That's different than a few days ago, when Carlyle was asked what he expects from Reimer and bluntly replied, "We don't ask him to win us games; we just ask him to give us a chance [to win]."

Reimer gets exactly what his coach is saying. He also doesn't feel the need to steal every game. In a perfect world, the Maple Leafs will play well enough consistently enough that he doesn't have to. That is why he is reluctant to take credit when things are going well.

"The team … the team," he said when asked about Toronto's success this season. "When the team is playing as well as it has been, it makes our job pretty easy. At the same time, I look at it more as I can give this team a chance to win; whether we're playing the best goalie … Henrik Lundqvist, Martin Brodeur, Carey Price … or the worst goalie. It's about what I need to do to give this team a chance to win regardless of who is standing at the other end of the ice."

It was nearly a given that the Leafs would acquire a replacement for James Reimer, but his positive attitude and hard work has helped him improve noticeably. (Photo: Getty Images)

Reimer, will, however, admit to feeling a sense of relief having been handed the No. 1 job. The fact Nonis did not feel compelled to make a trade at the deadline speaks volumes about how he hopes things will unfold.

"Any time the GM, the coach or the players show faith in you, they are the ones you listen to," Reimer said. "They are the people that matter, whether they say you are playing great or terrible. When you get the confirmation from the GM it is nice and it makes you want to play even harder. Having said that, whether people are praising me or ragging on me I want to go out and play as hard as I can."

Reimer is in the infancy of what he hopes will be a long and prosperous NHL career. Having not participated in a playoff game since he helped the South Carolina Stingrays win the ECHL championship in 2008-09, he knows his toughest challenges this season remain.

He has been good, but if the Maple Leafs are to have a successful playoff run, he'll need to be better. He said hard work is the key to any goalie making it in the NHL.

"Everyone pretty much does the same things, so I think it really comes down to your compete level," Reimer said. "Everyone has the same resources, a good goalie coach and good video at hand. It's what you do with it. Do you pay attention when you're watching video? Do you work as hard as you possibly can during practice to make the most out of it? Do you listen to the coaches and your teammates? It's how much you invest in each of the opportunities you are given. That's what I try to do. Coming up I don't think I was the most skilled goalie, but I tried to be one of the hardest workers."

It has paid off. On to the playoffs.

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