Bernier solid as Leafs take down Pens in shootout: DiManno…

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PITTSBURGH—James Reimer peeled open one eye, then the other, conducted an inventory of his body parts.

Oh-oh.

“It was one of those things where I woke up, took a look and things didn’t feel right. So, just err on the side of caution.”

Not quite sure what Reimer saw amiss, casting his baby blues down there and, frankly, didn’t wish to inquire. But certainly he felt groin tightness, the now too-familiar tweak of things not right below the belt. Again.

Thus it came to pass that Jonathan Bernier was between the pipes for the Maple Leafs here Wednesday night, in the aft-end of Toronto’s ninth back-to-back combo this season — third straight against he Penguins.

The good Bernier, not the gagging Bernier.

The Bernier who quite dashingly led Toronto into overtime, surviving a waning-minutes shooting gallery with Tyler Bozak in the box for bulldozing Matt Cullen.

One hard-nosed point earned through 65 minutes.

One bonus point earned — and the 3-2 win, first this season in three tries versus Pittsburgh — in the shootout, as Peter Holland and P.A. Parenteau scored against rookie Matthew Murray, while only David Perron got the best of Bernier.

Huge confidence boost for the Leafs, who saw out the old year with a victory and satisfied sense of accomplishment.

“I don’t know if that’s the style we want to play as a team,” said Bernier afterwards, of the combined 77 shots free-for-all. “But at the end of the day we found a way to win and that’s the bottom line.’’

Bernier, of course, has been peppered even more with questions of self-confidence than he was with rubber Wednesday night, so he particularly relished the victory.

“I had an off-night (Tuesday) but I look at my past six, seven games and I’m feeling pretty good. I’m making the saves at the right time so I have no confidence issue right now.’’

Coach Mike Babcock was rightly approving of his netminder, if less savouring of the whiplash hockey that unfolded before his horrified eyes.

“Bernie was real good, a bounce-back for him, obviously. There was a lot of opportunity both ways, to tell you the truth, way more open than we like to play. But we were able to get two points.’’

Antoine Bibeau, summoned from the Marlies — they’d been up homeward-bound by bus from Cleveland, ’round Buffalo, when the call was placed; Bibeau hustled into a rental car and pointed south, PR man at the wheel — arrived half an hour before warm-ups. A whew close call.

Meanwhile, Reimer was downcast of visage as he paced about the bowel corridors of the Consol Energy Center pre-game. “It’s tough. Last night I went to bed with a smile on my face.’’ (You know, I actually think Opie does smile in his sleep.) “I was really looking forward to playing. It’s just not in the cards.’’

Reimer spent all of 20 minutes in the paint during Tuesday’s 6-3 loss to the Islanders, dispatched from bench to crease at the start of the third period, after Bernier had already surrendered the entire six-pack of goals.

In retrospect, especially since Babcock acknowledged afterwards he’d been fretful about the slushy ice conditions at the Air Canada Centre — to the extent he considered not tapping Reimer’s shoulder — the question must be asked: Why was Reimer deployed at all to mop up a game that was obviously in the bag for the visitors, and with Reimer on tap for starter duty in Pittsburgh?

This, after all, was Comeback Part II for Reimer, with no time to warm-up and, likely, little time to warm down post-game as the team high-tailed it to the airport for its flight. Comeback Part I, back on Dec. 3, hadn’t gone well either, Reimer capable of only a one-game cameo appearance, re-aggravating the groin injury that has vexed him since Nov. 23.

Somebody has to wear this — the mishandling of Reimer: Either the coach or the medical staff that has now twice got it wrong — Reimer wasn’t ready on either occasion that he tried to resume his season — or the trainers who administer therapy or, well, Reimer himself.

Not a major setback, he reassured during a brief media scrum. “I’m not worried about it. Think it’s probably just a couple more days.’’

But clearly disheartening, though Reimer would not hold the swampy, soft ice conditions at the ACC as a contributing factor.

In any event, Bernier — exasperating the night before — got a 17th start chance to make a good impression on his coach in a contest with several intriguing sub-plots, notably another encounter between Phil Kessel and his ex-club. Once more, though, Kessel was a non-factor on the score sheet, which is his M.O. against former clubs.

Phil the Un-Thrill, 0-for-2015 against Toronto, did however put a team-high four shots on Bernier, but the Toronto goalie stoned him twice in a goal-crease scramble in the second, then later again when No. 81 broke in alone on the wing.

There were at least half-a-dozen breakaways stopped at either end of the rink.

Dion Phaneuf opened the scoring with a point-shot that threaded through a goal-mouth screen to beat Murray, making his fourth start while Marc-Andre Fleury recovers from concussion. Chris Kunitz got that one back less than two minutes later.

In the second, Pens were the more dominant and aggressive team as the game opened up in entertaining fashion. The clubs exchanged goals, Jake Gardiner getting credit for a James van Riemsdyk snap shot that glanced in off the defenceman’s glove and Sidney Crosby responding for the home crew.

The third period was almost breathless up-and-down the ice hockey, Babcock probably going quietly insane, loath as he is towards un-structured shinny. Ditto OT, the Leafs leaning hard on their last line of defence.

In Bernier, on this night, Babcock had a solid goalie in the crunch. If only crunch didn’t come to crush so often.

30/12/2015 23:01  By: TORONTO STAR

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