Being a goalie in that NHL is a tough job, to state the obvious. If you somehow get to that level, you are compensated for your skill and determination spectacularly well but there are, we can agree, less stressful ways to make a living.
When I comment on the performance of a goaltender, I don’t come from a position of expertise about the skills and intricacies of the position. (I never played the position.) Nor do I have detailed knowledge of modern-day statistical formulas that speak a different language than I do, but yes, can help paint the picture when we assess the performance of goaltenders.
I’ve seen hundreds of goalies, good and not so good for many, many years. What I do know is that even “mediocre” NHL goalies can have improbably outstanding runs where it looks like they’ll never let in a goal. I remember Bruce Gamble, a good pro goalie but a journeyman by NHL standards in the mid and late 1960s. Gamble had an amazing streak for the Leafs during the 1965-’66 season, I think it was. (See the great old Harold Barkley photo of Gamble at left, with teammate Mike Walton.) He popped three or four shutouts in a row and looked phenomenal. The bubble then burst and Gamble gave up 7 goals, I think it was, against the Habs one night. He had a nice career with the Leafs before being traded with Walton during the 1970-’71 season, but never recaptured the stunning success he had in that shutout streak. Who could?
Heck, J.S. Giguere, a fine goalie but not a Hall-of-Famer, sure looked all-world during that incredible Ducks playoff run in 2003. He was so “in the zone”, so focused, so on his game that he really and truly looked like he couldn’t be beat. He was so consistently square to the shooters that only a fluke or an absolutely perfect shot could have beat him. Giguere has had a good career, including a Cup, but no one can play like he did in those playoffs throughout their career. It’s just not possible.
But my point is simply this: all talented, NHL-level goalies are capable of really good streaks. They are also capable of losing their confidence very quickly and looking not so good at all.
The great ones generally have longer periods of excellence and shorter periods of being lousy. But even some of the best will have entire seasons (look at Ryan Miller’s career…good year, OK year, great year, poor year, etc.) where they aren’t themselves, or what they generally can be.
So why do I mention all this? Well, as we speak, the Leafs are without a game-stealing goaltender. Oh, I know The Monster had some pretty solid games not long ago when the Leafs won four in a row, and off and on prior to that mini-run. And Reimer was pretty good right out of the chute this season until he was hurt. But if we’re honest, really honest, the Leaf brass clearly was not confident in Gustavsson early this season. This was evident when Burke basically said Gus was probably better off and more comfortable not being a number-one. (It’s been clear from the get-go, as I have said here many times, that they want Reimer to be the guy…)
Now, I realize Gustavsson has had some fine games. And I like him a lot, as I’ve also posted here a number of times. But the team also often scored a lot to give him nice cushions in some of those winning efforts.
I really like Reimer, too, who I believe is going to be a good NHL goaltender.
But it’s obvious Reimer, post-injury, is not yet the guy we saw most of the time in the second half of the 2010-’11 season. He makes some big saves, but we expect that of NHL goaltenders. What separates the goalies at that level is consistency and their ability to minimize the number of bad goals which can kill your team’s confidence.
Throw in the ability to make some timely saves when you are either a goal ahead of a goal behind and you’ve got a good NHL goalie, maybe even better than that.
That last point is something that Reimer did so well a year ago—he generally kept his team ahead when they held a lead late in the game, and gave the Leafs a chance to come back when they were behind by a goal or two.
But right now, Wilson is in an unenviable position. To show just how quickly things can change, we have moved from what some were seeing as a goaltending controversy (because Wilson had to choose between two goaltenders playing pretty well), to a situation where he has to decide which of two guys who are just playing OK should be in net on Thursday night against the Wild.
I remember writing last season, before Reimer arrived, that one of the Leaf goalies would have to start stealing some games. In the end, Reimer was the guy who stole some games, but we all remember that it wasn’t quite enough to save what had been an uneven first-half.
Now, we need to see that kind of goaltending again. Doesn’t matter who—Reimer, Gustavsson, Scrivens, Johnny Bower. The Leafs are an improving team, but an imperfect one. They can score a flood of goals, but can also suddenly go cold. They can play good defense, but still make a lot of coverage mistakes and turn the puck over in the neutral zone—like most every other team in the league.
No team is perfect. The Leafs fit in nicely. So what do they need, given some inconsistency in other aspects of their game?
They need their goalies to not only win the games they should have won (like Tuesday night at home against the Sens) and, as importantly, steal games they maybe had no business winning.
If not, everyone’s collar is going to get a lot tighter in the days ahead, as other teams step up the pace—and the race for playoff spots in the East is even more heated.
Nothing is guaranteed. Hey, Washington lost to the Islanders. But you don’t want to miss too many opportunities to jump in the standings. You never get back the points you lost.