James Reimer will finally get to fulfill a childhood dream.
Reimer had a 49-save performance in a 4-1 win over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, allowing the Toronto Maple Leafs to qualify for the NHL playoffs for the first time since 2004.
"It's unbelievable," said Reimer with a huge grin. "That's the hockey where you want to play always as a kid growing up. It's playoff hockey. Especially for our city, it's been a little while so I know they're anxious for [the playoffs], they're ready for [the playoffs].
"It's good to finally clinch."
James van Riemsdyk, with two, Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul scored for Toronto (25-15-5). Phil Kessel and Cody Franson each had two assists.
Van Riemsdyk was just 15 years old the last time the Leafs played in the playoffs but can vividly recall those games and is excited to be part of the resurgence.
"This is huge," said the 23-year-old. "It's been a long time coming now and this is a market and a group of fans that definitely deserves to have this team in the playoffs and competing for a Cup."
Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said making the playoffs was a goal for this group from the start of the season.
"We're trying to earn respect back for our group and that to me is the most important thing," said Carlyle. "For us to qualify now is a feather in the players' cap for all the work that they've put in."
Jakob Silfverberg replied for Ottawa (24-15-6). Craig Anderson stopped 18 shots in taking the loss.
'It's unbelievable. That's the hockey where you want to play always as a kid growing up. It's playoff hockey. Especially for our city, it's been a little while so I know they're anxious for [the playoffs], they're ready for [the playoffs]. It's good to finally clinch.' —Leafs goalie James Reimer
Toronto sits alone in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with 55 points, while Ottawa dropped to seventh (52 points) after the New York Islanders (53 points) jumped into sixth with a 5-4 shootout win at Winnipeg earlier Saturday.
The Senators will need to earn at least three points out of their last four games to clinch a playoff spot.
Reimer, who has been stellar for Toronto in recent weeks, continued to dominate the Senators and improved his overall record against Ottawa to 8-1-1 and a perfect 6-0 at Scotiabank Place. He'll be among the Leafs' players making their playoff debuts.
"Fifty shots, 27 blocked, 13 missed the net so we had the puck a lot of the night and had good opportunity to shoot it, lots of opportunity obviously to shoot it, but obviously Reimer must be the Vezina Trophy winner and Hart Trophy winner," said Senators coach Paul MacLean.
"He gets our vote because every time we play him he stops every puck we get there."
There's no denying Reimer enjoys playing in Ottawa.
"I have no idea why we're getting good results here," said Reimer. "It's fun and it's a great atmosphere. I've said it a million times a lot of passionate fans on both sides of the fence here and it just makes for a great game."
With Ottawa dominating on the shot clock but trailing 2-1, Kadri gave the Maple Leafs a two-goal lead with a shot at 14:11 of the third that Anderson should have stopped.
Kadri had not scored since the last time these two teams played on March 30 and admitted to feeling some relief to finally seeing the back of the net.
"It was a goal that we definitely needed," said Kadri. "I felt like the weight of my shoulders was taken off, but just because it was such a big goal in the hockey game that meant even more than my drought."
Lupul then put the game away for good with a breakaway goal that Anderson got a piece of with less than two minutes to go.
After a scoreless first period, the Leafs led 2-1 after 40 minutes thanks to a pair of goals by van Riemsdyk. The big left-winger opened the scoring at 8:22 with a deflection of a Franson point shot before doubling the Toronto lead on the power play by shovelling home a rebound at 12:24.
After some great pressure in the Toronto end late in the second, the Senators were rewarded when Silfverberg's shot from just inside the blue-line beat Reimer with 42.7 seconds remaining in the period.
The Senators outshot the Leafs 17-5 in the first, but many of those came from the outside.
"When you have 50 shots and one goal you can go back and look at it and maybe there's too many shots from the perimeter and not getting to the good second chances and the rebounds," said Ottawa's Zack Smith. "Reimer did play well and you can't take that away from him, but I like to think we have enough skill guys and enough goal scorers that if you put up 50 shots there's going to be more than one goal."
The Maple Leafs looked to have taken a 1-0 lead midway through the period, but a potential goal was called back due to incidental contact by Toronto's Leo Komarov on Anderson.
Minutes later, Erik Condra had two great chances on Reimer but put the puck directly into the Toronto goalie's pads.