Jonathan Bernier (left) and Matt Hunwick (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
If there was one guy in the NHL who deserved to have something good happen to him, it was probably Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier. And it did, finally, on Saturday night.
No need to tell Jonathan Bernier that success and the confidence that comes with it are fleeting. He last had a shutout 361 days and two coaches ago. After Bernier stopped 43 shots against the Dallas Stars last Dec. 23, he went into the Christmas break with a 14-8-3 record with a .913 save percentage and his team was firmly ensconced in a playoff spot, holding down the first wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference with a three-point cushion.
Bernier won seven games the rest of the season, the Leafs fell into a sinkhole and much of the pain that Mike Babcock predicted when he took the coaching job this summer has come to fruition. But it hasn’t been felt more acutely by anyone on the team than Bernier, who had failed to win an NHL game in October, November and most of December, lost the confidence of his coach and found himself looking for his game in the minors.
So if good karma counts for anything, perhaps a reversal in fortune is in order here. Maybe the 5-0 shutout Bernier pitched over his former mates on the Los Angeles Kings Saturday night can be a springboard to better times instead of misery. That’s the way the hockey gods are supposed to work, isn’t it?
Bernier is a good guy who is in a tough spot. Not sure he is or ever will be a bona fide No. 1 goalie in the NHL, but he’d being paid like one. And up to Saturday night, he certainly hadn’t been playing like one. On the one hand, including his stint with the Toronto Marlies, Bernier had four shutouts in just over a week. On the other hand, he went into Saturday’s game on the losing end of a team that had given up five goals.
The difference Saturday night, though, was that Bernier looked like a capable stopper, something that hasn’t been the case for quite some time in the NHL. Not only had he gone 0-8-3 this season, but he looked tentative and uncomfortable almost every time out.
“You’re just seeing the play almost ahead,” Bernier said of his shutout effort. “I thought my last two games, even if I didn’t get the win I felt like I was going in the right direction and tonight it paid off.”
Babcock does not have a lot of patience for bad goaltending because it tends to lose his team games and as he reminds everyone almost every time he speaks, he’s in the business of winning hockey games. It seemed at times that Babcock had no time for Bernier and his struggles and only turned to him because he had no other choice with James Reimer and Garret Sparks out with injuries. But it was clear Babcock was happy for his goaltender.
“It hasn’t gone good for Bernie and it has to be unbelievable hard on you mentally,” Babcock said. “You get put through the ringer and he’s been down in the minors and watched Sparks play ahead of him, that’s not easy. I don’t care what walk of life you’re in, when someone takes your shift, takes your job, takes your position, it’s hard for you and you’ve got to decide why you play the game. You play the game because you love it and for the joy of the game and when the joy leaves you and you’re not enjoying it anymore, it’s hard to be a as good as you’re capable of being.
So now the question is, does this restore Babcock’s confidence in the man who is supposed to be his No. 1 goaltender? It certainly can’t hurt, but it’s hard to imagine Bernier will not continue to be on a very short leash. But it could not have come at a better time for Bernier. He’s forced to take the net and having to go in with no self confidence of faith from your coach would make for a miserable time.
“As soon as you feel good about yourself, the coach does,” Babcock said. “I’ve got to give the guy a ton of credit. I mean, it’s gone bad for him. He should feel proud and good about himself. When things start going bad for you and you start thinking everyone is against you…let’s be honest, it’s way better for us if he’s good. We’re all pulling for him like crazy.”