Photo Credit: Don Wright/USA TODAY Sports
Tonight wasn’t supposed to be Jonathan Bernier’s last opportunity to prove himself in 2015. That was last night against the Islanders, when he gave up six goals. The stats, historically, have shown him to be even worse than what we’ve already considered rock bottom when he’s playing on no rest, and James Reimer was declared the starter as soon as a mic was pointed in Mike Babcock’s direction.
But Reimer wasn’t ready, and Bernier got a redemption opportunity. Boy, did he ever take it.
The first sign that this game was going to be atypical compared to most of his starts didn’t come from himself but from his teammates. Just under four minutes in, the Leafs took advantage of a bad exit strategy by the Penguins. Leo Komarov met an attempted dump at the wall, Nazem Kadri picked up the now-loose puck from the corner, and shoveled it out to Dion Phaneuf. In vintage fashion, the captain wired it at Matt Murray, beating a crowd of about seven people and slipping into the net to give the Leafs an early lead.
A penalty to Peter Holland gave the Leafs low odds of holding onto the lead for long, and sure enough, the Penguins tied it up soon after. It’s amazing that a top powerplay unit of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Chris Kunitz, and Kris Letang doesn’t score, like, every single time they touch the ice, but this time they did. Coincidentally, it was Phaneuf’s failure to clear out the puck that gave the Penguins an opportunity, and Crosby saw Kunitz in wide open territory for a hard pass that simply had to be redirected in.
Leo Komarov provided a scary moment in late in the period when he ran Kris Letang into the boards. It wasn’t the cleanest play in the word, so many, including Komarov himself, believed that he was going to be tossed from the game, but due to how early Letang pumped the breaks, he escaped with just a minor penalty that was killed off. Late in the period, the two captains shoved at each other and received roughing minors setting the tone for another wide-open period.
Jake Gardiner scored a bit of a pinball goal to open the second period. Gardiner carried it out of his own zone and into neutral ice, and passed it off to James Van Riemsdyk. When he was looking to get out of the way, JVR’s shot actually bounced off of his upper body and moved into an angle that Matt Murray wasn’t prepared for. Once again, though, Toronto’s lead didn’t last log. Seconds after Phaneuf had a second star-scuffle, this time with Evgeni Malkin, Crosby made his presence known once again, Crosby chased a dumped puck into the offensive zone, pumped the breaks, let Morgan Rielly make the first move, and had all the time in the world to pick his spot on Bernier.
A crazy thing happened, though. While the Penguins kept peppering Bernier, taking 20 shots in the second period alone, none of them were going in. He thrived on it, getting square to every opportunity, reacting to every bounce, and thoroughly frustrated his opponents. Even three powerplays in the ensuing 25 minutes wouldn’t be enough to help them crack him while the Leafs continued to struggle to break free of the tie themselves. As such the game headed to overtime, where the Penguins were met by Bernier on every close call. So much so, that even they had to respect a good effort.
When you’re playing so well that your opponents give you props pic.twitter.com/KpamUl5Pcp
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) December 31, 2015
The game then headed to a shootout. While David Perron opened it up by beating Bernier with a nice backhand, Peter Holland quickly came to his rescue to neutralize the impact. This gave Toronto’s netminder the pat on the back he needed to push through, as he stopped Sidney Crosby’s five hole effort to set PA Parenteau up for a go-ahead tally. With the game on the line, Bernier stayed with Kris Letang throughout his deke attempt, made the low glove-side save, and won his team the game.
A High Note
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) December 31, 2015
I spared no words when I suggested that 2015 was a disaster that Jonathan Bernier needed to leave behind and that he needed to put a serious effort into turning the ship around in the new year for himself, his fans, and his teammates. It appears he got a head start on that with the opportunity he was gifted tonight, snapping his streak of losing on consecutive-night starts and putting the blowout in Brooklyn behind him. 39 saves tonight makes him a very deserving first star.
A few other guys had stellar games today. Jake Gardiner, for example, wasn’t exactly the sniper on his goal, but did create van Riemsdyk’s opportunity, and was the team’s best possession defenceman. Dion Phaneuf drove the puck towards the net, into the net, and he drove Pittsburgh’s superstars insane. Mark Arcobello was put in many offensive situations and didn’t look out of place, despite being removed from this group for over a month thanks to his Marlies tenure.
Some players had weaker nights, but overall, this was a pretty evenly fought game. Both teams deserved it but had great goaltending support; Matt Murray, who has been the AHL’s best goalie despite being one of its youngest for the past two years, is going to start causing Marc-Andre Fleury real trouble real soon.
See You Next Year
That’s a fun way to end the calendar year! Sure, there may be some regret about how tonight went if the Leafs miss out on Auston Matthews because the winning lottery ball belonged to the team with two fewer points, and the Penguins miss the playoffs by one point and don’t end up having to give the Leafs a first round pick for Phil Kessel. But hey; that’s for management to worry about. You want the players to do their best every night, and their best got them a victory tonight.
The Leafs head back to the Air Canada Centre on Saturday for their next game, where they take on the St. Louis Blues. It’s a 7 PM start, and after that game, the man between the pipes will be just about anybody’s guess.