James Reimer played the best game of his NHL career Friday night to help the Toronto Maple Leafs stave off elimination. Now, after the 2-1 win in Game 5 over the Boston Bruins, the series heads back to the Air Canada Centre for a Game 6 on Sunday.
Following a mediocre performance in which he allowed four goals in a Game 4 loss that put the Leafs in a 3-1 hole, Reimer showed a lot of character to bounce back strong and make all the key saves (including a highlight-reel stop of a Patrice Bergeron shot, video below) when called upon in front of a raucous TD Garden crowd.
"The playoffs take different twists and turns, and as a young goaltender he’s been presented with a lot of pressure," said Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle after the game.
"And you know, he’s remained fairly calm and levelheaded. And you can see the growth of a hockey player and specifically a goaltender that’s finding this way and learning some of the intricacies of playoff hockey, and the experience should be real valuable to him as it should be to all of our young players."
When the Bruins were spending a lot of time in the Leafs' zone during the third period of Game 5 and fired a lot of pucks toward his net, Reimer stood tall and prevented his team from going to overtime. His night ended with 43 saves, which is a new playoff career high for him.
"[Reimer] was great tonight," said Leafs defenseman Cody Franson. "You can’t ask for any more from a goaltender than what he gave us tonight. He was unbelievable, he made a lot of big saves at key times for us and we are coming out of here with a win because of him."
Friday's performance is exactly what Toronto needs from its No. 1 goaltender on Sunday at the ACC, where the Bruins are 2-0 in this series with eight goals scored.
"We believe in him in this room, he gives us a chance to win every night, he’s played great all year and throughout the playoffs," said Leafs forward Tyler Bozak, whose short-handed goal gave his team a 1-0 lead in the second period. "As far as we go we are going to need him and he’s been doing that for us."
Will Reimer be the catalyst for the Leafs for the remainder of their first-round series? As long as he doesn't allow any soft goals that ruin the confidence of himself and the team, the Leafs will believe they can pull off a historic comeback to reach the second round for the first time in nine years.
However, beating the Bruins two more times will require the Leafs to improve several aspects of their game, starting with the team's play in its own end.
Toronto's defense has not played well in this series, with too many turnovers and an inability to get the puck out of its zone in time to prevent the Boston forecheck from creating sustained offensive zone pressure. As a team, the Leafs have 81 giveaways, which is the most among playoff teams.
Boston has fired an average of 41.5 shots on Reimer through the five games of this series, which has forced the 25-year-old goaltender to be near-perfect in every matchup for the Leafs to win.
Making matters more difficult has been the impressive play of Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask, who has been spectacular in the first round with a .932 save percentage. Toronto has scored an average of just 2.4 goals per game in this series, which is more than half of a goal per game less than its regular-season average.
When Reimer struggles, the Leafs' chances of winning decrease significantly, because it's highly unlikely that his teammates will score four or five goals on Rask. Here's how Reimer's stats compare in wins and losses from this series.
With the Leafs offense struggling to score enough goals, Reimer has to prevent the Bruins from dominating in the first 40 minutes of the game and taking a lead into the third period.
Boston has outscored the Leafs 11-5 in the first and second periods in the three games that Reimer has lost in this series, and in the two games that he's won, Toronto has a 3-1 advantage in the first 40 minutes. The Bruins were 15-4-4 in the regular season when leading after two periods, and they have won both games in this series when taking a lead into the second intermission.
The Leafs have played well in the third period during this series, and they completely outplayed the Bruins in the final 20 minutes plus overtime of Game 4 despite losing on a Krejci game-winner.
If Reimer can weather the storm for the first 10 minutes and instill some confidence in his teammates, the Leafs will like their chances of taking this series to a Game 7. Toronto will be confident late in the game on Sunday if it's close, and it's Reimer's job to put his team in that position.
Reimer stole Game 5 for the Leafs, and he needed to do this at least once for his team to have any chance of winning this series.
All of the pressure is on the Bruins right now because they are the team with a chance to close out the series in Game 6. Boston is now 3-7 in non-Game 7 closeout games since Claude Julien became its head coach prior to the 2007-08 season, and Rask has lost his last five closeout games. Despite winning the Stanley Cup two years ago, the Bruins still have a lot to prove in situations where they can clinch a series.
Given their success at TD Garden over the last week (two wins already), another good performance from Reimer that results in a Game 6 victory would give the Leafs a fantastic chance to win the series on the road. Including this first-round matchup against the Bruins, Toronto is 15-9-3 away from the ACC this season.
Playing in the playoffs for the first time has been a learning experience for Reimer, and now that he has two good wins to build some confidence from, his next challenge is to be more consistent. One more poor performance will result in the Leafs going on summer vacation.
"We obviously believe in each other and what we can accomplish as a team, but I don’t think we’re ahead of ourselves," Reimer said.
"We’ve still got a long road ahead of us and we’ve got to come out in two days and play hard. It’s going to be another tough battle and we’re going to have to bring our A game to try to squeak out a win."
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston. All quotes obtained firsthand.