PHILADELPHIA -- After years of speculation and a summer full of hype, Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier finally has his first legitimate shot at earning a No. 1 starter position, and he made his presence known on Wednesday night as his Leafs defeated the Philadelphia Flyers, 3-1.
"You don't know what to expect," Bernier said. "It was definitely nice to get the first one out of the way."
As if the anxiety of making his highly anticipated debut wasn't enough, Bernier and the Maple Leafs needed to wait while the Flyers went through their home-opening ceremonies, and once the puck dropped, Philadelphia put Bernier's feet to the fire early and often.
"The first period was pretty busy," he said. "You stop thinking and start reacting. That helps a lot."
The Flyers registered 15 shot attempts in the opening stanza and directed 31 attempts at the net in total. Despite the barrage, Bernier managed to stop all but one. The Flyers lone tally came on their third power play in the first, when Brayden Schenn opened the scoring with seven seconds left in the frame.
It would be Bernier's lone blemish of the night against 32 registered shots on goal and 73 total attempts at the goal.
"I was feeling pretty good but you know I got lucky a few times," Bernier said. "They threw a lot of pucks in the first and they got tipped wide. I thought we played pretty good defensively and blocked those shots. I was just trying to make the first save."
The goaltender's performance was the chief component in the Maple Leafs' win, and his ability to stop Wayne Simmonds on a penalty shot with three seconds left in the second period was potentially a game changer. Had Simmonds converted, Philadelphia would have carried a 2-1 lead into the third.
Instead, Toronto entered the stanza with an opportunity to take the lead.
"That's what you want as a goalie," Bernier said. "To keep your team in it as long as possible."
Bernier and Simmonds share a friendship that dates back to their time in the Los Angeles Kings organization. Despite the relationship, Bernier says it played no part in his ability to stop Simmonds on the attempt.
"I just read him a little bit," he said. "I tried to take away the angles. I saw his stick with the blade going down and got lucky with the save."
Simmonds isn't the only tie Bernier has with the Philadelphia organization, as Flyers assistant general manager Ron Hextall previously worked in the Kings front office in the same capacity. In addition to his work with the Kings, Hextall also acted as the manager of the club's American Hockey League affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs, where he was able to provide a support system for the developing goaltender during his AHL time.
"He was unbelievable for me," Bernier said of Hextall. "Especially when I was in the minors and I didn't see the end coming. He was always there and always positive. I have a lot of respect for that guy."
While Bernier's purgatory in the American League is through, that NHL starting gig is still not his. After years toiling behind Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles, Bernier is expected to compete with Maple Leafs incumbent starter James Reimer for playing time, a competition that could last for an indefinite period of time.
Head coach Randy Carlyle has stated that he will stick with the hot hand and could implement a "win and you're in" type of system in determining who will get the start. Both Bernier and Reimer recorded wins in their first appearances of the season, so it's not the worst problem for the Leafs to have.
Carlyle has also said that history against an opponent could play a factor. Toronto's next game is the club's home opener against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night. Bernier has never played Ottawa, while Reimer has recorded an 8-1-1 record with a dominating .949 save percentage, 1.69 goals against average and three shutouts.
Looks like Bernier still has his work cut out for him.