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It's do or die vs. already dead

Tonight's game huge for Leafs, meaningless for Jets

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Manitoba native James Reimer is slated to be between the pipes tonight for Toronto when the desperate Leafs host the Winnipeg Jets.

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Manitoba native James Reimer is slated to be between the pipes tonight for Toronto when the desperate Leafs host the Winnipeg Jets.

TORONTO -- What you'll get tonight on Hockey Night in Canada from the Air Canada Centre fits the definition of all or nothing.

The 6 p.m. game (CBC, TSN 1290) is everything to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who will turn back to Manitoba native James Reimer in goal as they try to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs after an eight-game losing streak in late March.

The game means nothing to the Winnipeg Jets beyond the platitudes you'll get about playing for pride, playing for jobs while playing out the string of another disappointing ending.

The 34-34-10 Jets went to the early tee-times list, officially exiting the post-season conversation when they lost 4-2 at home on Thursday to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Leafs, with Reimer relieving an injured Jonathan Bernier partway through their 4-3 overtime victory over the Boston Bruins on Thursday, are breathing oxygen once again, with two wins this week.

But they are still in a jackpot in ninth spot -- one too low -- and trailing current wild-card holders Detroit and Columbus, both of whom have a game in hand on Toronto.

Four games are left including tonight's for Toronto. Four wins might do the trick, but would still require some help elsewhere.

"It's the same as it was yesterday," embattled Leafs coach Randy Carlyle told the assembly of reporters at Friday's practice at the MasterCard Centre. "These are all games that are of vital importance to our hockey club and the most important game of the season is tomorrow."

And despite all his ties to Winnipeg, Manitoba and various members of the Jets organization, Carlyle wasn't caring much on Friday about what happened on the prairies.

"It shouldn't matter to us one bit," Carlyle said. "We have a game plan that we have to play to and we have to make sure that we're better than we were the last game. That's our goal, to take the steps to make sure we are a better hockey club than we were last night against Boston.

"We know Winnipeg will come in and give us their best."

That's more of an unknown than Carlyle thinks, but what is known is the hopes of Leafs Nation -- and maybe the coach's job, according to many pundits here -- rest on Reimer's shoulders.

The Morweena native was carrying the ball for Toronto through a recent injury to Bernier and Bernier is now gone again, this time for a minimum of three weeks, Carlyle said Friday, with a strain of the medial collateral ligament in his knee.

To some, the situation is thick with irony, given Carlyle was perceived to have delivered a great insult to Reimer after a loss in Detroit a couple of weeks ago, saying the goalie was "just OK."

That has long since been resolved between coach and goalie, Carlyle said. "The very next day," he said. "It's a non-issue as far as we're concerned, but some people here seem to think that OK is ripping a goaltender. That's a new one for me. I'm never surprised by what you guys come up with. You continually surprise me."

Reimer, for his part, said Friday he's ready to give it his best shot, making no apologies for his efforts and his 12-13-1 record this season.

"Honestly right now, there's lots of thoughts swirling in your head about lots of things but now it's just time to stop the puck," he said. "It doesn't really matter what transpires after that season or all of that white noise, per se. All I'm trying to do is play my best and get those two points tomorrow."

And of course adding some zip to the story by playing the Jets is fine by Reimer. He started but was yanked from Toronto's 5-4 overtime loss at the MTS Centre on Jan. 25.

"It's always fun playing a team where you're from," Reimer said. "It'll be good to play them again tomorrow and it doesn't really matter what's going on around the rink, it's the two points we need tomorrow. I'm pretty focused, ready to play them."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2014 C1

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