Back in Toronto, Hurricanes’ Reimer moves beyond ghosts of playoff past

Hurricanes goalie James Reimer made 37 saves in 1 4-1 win Tuesday to help Carolina complete a three-game sweep of the Rangers in their qualifier series. (Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press via AP)

Seven years is a long time.

Remember the “Harlem Shake,” the craze was running rampant through the internet? That was back in 2013. The Geico “Hump Day” camel commercial debuted the same year.

And in Toronto, the admission by its then-mayor, the late Rob Ford, that he indeed had smoked crack was a scandalous, worldwide story. It still isn’t what jumps to mind when someone mentions 2013 in Canada’s Queen City.

“You never want to have a game like we did against Boston that time,” said Carolina defenseman Jake Gardiner, who was with the Maple Leafs when they lost Game 7 of their first round series to the Bruins in 2013 despite having a 3-0 lead near the game’s midway point. “It was a tough one. It was a historic game, one that no one’s ever gonna forget probably.”

James Reimer, Toronto’s goalie in that series, hasn’t forgotten either, and it wasn’t until Tuesday — seven years later — that he again started a playoff game.

“Obviously, I had some fun and some disappointments here in the playoffs … but coming back here and just being the playoffs and having success in this building, it’s fun,” Reimer said after he made 37 saves to help Carolina complete its three-game sweep of the Rangers with a 4-1 win Tuesday at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. “Obviously, a lot of memories here. … But still, a lot of fun in this building, and it’s good to be back and win games.”

It would have been easy for Reimer to have never recovered from that game back in 2013, especially considering the bright lights and media scrutiny that come with playing in the “Center of the Hockey Universe.” Many had left Reimer’s career for dead after his tenure with the Florida Panthers ended with him not the heir apparent to the retiring Roberto Luongo, as planned, but rather part of a cap-dump trade that shipped him to Raleigh for failed goalie Scott Darling.

But the Hurricanes didn’t see getting Reimer back in the trade simply as a way to balance out cutting ties with Darling.

“We’ve known him now for a year, but his reputation of just being a solid character, great human being was something we already knew before we got him,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said of the 32-year-old Reimer after Tuesday’s win. “That’s really important for guys that we bring into this organization. That almost a prerequisite now. So we knew he was a great guy, and he fit right in with the group.”

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said James Reimer’s reputation as a good teammate and hard worker made him a perfect fit in the Carolina dressing room. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

It was that character — both his affable and easygoing nature, along with the hard work he puts in off the ice that led Brind’Amour to say he “studies the craft more than probably any goalie in the league” — that made the team believe he could be more than just a throw-in in their efforts to get out from under Darling’s contract.

“Obviously, you grow as a person through the tough times, right?” Brind’Amour said of Reimer. “And we all have them, whether it be in hockey or whatever, and then everyone goes through them.”

Following the Game 3 win the night before, Brind’Amour had espoused how his team believed in both of his goalies, Reimer and Petr Mrazek, and that playing Reimer in the series had been the plan all along even before Mrazek was solid in winning Games 1 and 2.

“It could’ve been easy to say to stick with Petr because he was phenomenal (Monday in Game 2) as well, but … I think the right move, obviously,” Brind’Amour said.

For a team that struggled to get adequate goaltending during much of its nine-season playoff drought, Brind’Amour in his first two seasons has found success in a two-goalie system anchored by Mrazek, with waiver claim Curtis McElhinney serving as his 1A last year and a supposed castoff in Reimer filling that role this season.

Reimer made his name as an up-and-coming goalie in Toronto, and the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season was his best season with the Maple Leafs. “Optimus Reim” even received a fifth-place vote for the Hart Trophy.

But it was the crushing way that season ended for the Leafs that make it memorable.

The Maple Leafs’ Game 7 collapse against the Boston Bruins was, at the time, the latest letdown in Toronto’s four-decade-long Stanley Cup drought. It was also the start of the Leafs’ recent futility against the Bruins — Boston has ousted Toronto in each of the last two seasons by knocking them out in a deciding Game 7.

It’s fair to say the Maple Leafs — or at least their fans — have not yet recovered from that 2013 loss.

As for Reimer, he physically moved on nearly three years later, first going to San Jose at the 2016 trade deadline and then signing a five-year, $17 million deal with Panthers on July 1 of that year.

But outside of relieving starter Martin Jones in the San Jose net in Game 4 of the 2016 Western Conference Final — the Sharks lost that game but won the series, advancing the Stanley Cup Final — the playoffs evaded Reimer since his time in Toronto.

While starting a game with a 2-0 series lead in a qualifying series is hardly the pinnacle of a high-stakes postseason affair, in a shortened five-game series it wouldn’t be hard for a team to seize momentum.

As it turned out, Reimer was exactly what Carolina — looking a bit too relaxed with two games in hand — needed to close out the series.

Reimer kept the Hurricanes in the game for two periods, making save after save to slow the desperate Rangers. In the second period, a scrum in the Carolina net ended with Reimer exhibiting some desperation of his own, swatting the puck away with the paddle of his stick — “At that point, you just throw your stick out there,” he said — to prevent a sure goal.

“Reims was phenomenal, and eventually we got into the fight,” Brind’Amour said. “Eventually, we got to our game.

“But if it wasn’t for Reims, that game would’ve been over.”

It was easy for people to think Reimer’s career was over after his tenure in Florida, but as he’s proven all season, there are still chapters left to be written in his career.

“For him to come back and bounce back like that and make saves the way he did, play the way he did — he basically stole us the game,” Gardiner said Friday. “So it was impressive and great for him.”

With either Washington or Boston — still with much of its core from back in 2013 — up next for Carolina, Brind’Amour will again have to choose which of his two goalies will be in the net. And like he did all season, he won’t hesitate to go to Reimer.

“Just knowing the kind of person he is, the faith he has in himself, I think it’s really shaped him to be ready for anything that comes his way, especially in the hockey world,” Brind’Amour said. “So, rising up to the challenge — and, obviously, he did that — I have no doubt that he will again here as we move along.”