Leafs' Bernier posts shutout with Marlies, Zamboni driver signed as backup
James Reimer aggravated injury, considered day-to-day
As the Toronto Marlies' bus idled on Court Street, struggling goaltender Jonathan Bernier began his road back to the NHL.
Sent to the American Hockey League on a conditioning assignment, Bernier rode that bus three hours to Blue Cross Arena in the hopes that a stint in the minors would get his game back on track.
Bernier got off to a good start Friday night, stopping all 22 shots he faced in shutting out the Rochester Americans. William Nylander and the Marlies provided plenty of support in beating the Americans 4-0, Bernier's first victory since April 5 against the Ottawa Senators.
It was his first AHL game since 2010 but a good opportunity for the Toronto Maple Leafs netminder to begin recapturing his confidence in front of 6,043 fans and in a low-pressure environment.
This wasn't NHL-level competition, which was the point in sending Bernier down. Bernier stopped shots from the likes of Connor McDavid's junior teammate Nick Baptiste, Jack Eichel's college linemate Evan Rodrigues and 2006 first-round pick Bobby Sanguinetti as the Marlies did a good job of limiting chances against.
Bernier, who's expected to start Sunday for the Marlies at Air Canada Centre, needed a boost the way things were going for him with the Leafs. His 0-8-1 record, 3.28 goals-against average and .888 save percentage rank among the worst in the league.
A penchant for allowing bad goals damaged Bernier's psyche and cost him coach Mike Babcock's trust. It got so bad that with James Reimer injured, the Leafs called up Garret Sparks to make his debut Monday against the Edmonton Oilers.
When Sparks did what Bernier couldn't, the Leafs suggested Bernier go down to the AHL to fix some things in his game. The 27-year-old agreed to the assignment, which was originally scheduled to last 10 days.
That remains to be seen, though, given Reimer's uncertain status. He aggravated a lower-body injury Thursday night against the Minnesota Wild, prompting Toronto to recall goalie Antoine Bibeau mere hours before he was supposed to back up Bernier.
Bibeau left Rochester after 5 p.m. to join the Leafs on the road in St. Louis, according to a team spokesman. Sparks could make his third NHL start or Bibeau his first Saturday night against the Blues.
With Bibeau gone, the Marlies were forced to sign David Ayres, the building operations manager at Mattamy Athletic Centre, to an amateur tryout contract to serve as Bernier's backup. Ayres, a 38-year-old who occasionally works for the ice crew and drives the zamboni during Marlies games, made it to Rochester just over an hour before puck drop.
<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/MarliesLive?src=hash">#MarliesLive</a> News (contd): The <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Marlies?src=hash">#Marlies</a> have also signed Dave Ayres to an Amateur Tryout for this evening's game. <a href="https://t.co/G2citncvOf">pic.twitter.com/G2citncvOf</a>—@TorontoMarlies
Ayres sat on the bench but only observed as Bernier played his first AHL game since May 22, 2010, when he was a 21-year-old Los Angeles Kings prospect playing for the Manchester Monarchs.
Bernier came a long way from then, acquired by the Leafs in the summer of 2013 and given every opportunity to be the starter. The 2011 first-round pick starred in his first season in Toronto until he was hurt in March, an injury that contributed to the Leafs falling out of contention and missing the playoffs.
Bernier found more struggles last year, but that paled in comparison to his performance this season that prompted his conditioning assignment.
Perhaps the Laval, Que., native can get back to his winning ways. Friday was Bernier's 15th AHL shutout in his 116th game at this level, and his hope is that it translates when he returns to the Leafs.
With files from CBC Sports