JVR spoils NHL debut of former coach
Forward lines: van Riemsdyk-Bozak-Kessel, McClement-Grabovski-Kulemin, Komarov-Kadri-MacArthur, McLaren-Steckel-Brown
Defence pairings: Phaneuf-Holzer, Gunnarsson-Kostka, Franson-Fraser
Goaltenders: Scrivens (60:00 minutes played, 31 saves, 1 GA), Rynnas (0:00)
When the 2007 Team Canada juniors won an epic semi-final against the United States on the strength of three shootout goals by Jonathan Toews, one of the heartbroken American players was current Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk. And the coach of that U.S. team that went on to win bronze was Ron Rolston.
On Thursday night at Air Canada Centre, van Riemsdyk and the Leafs hosted the Sabres in a game marking Rolston’s first game behind the Buffalo bench after taking the reins from Lindy Ruff. It was the pupil getting the better of the teacher as van Riemsdyk’s two goals were the difference in a 3-1 Toronto victory.
“I remember the confidence that Rolston showed in me,” said van Riemsdyk. “I think he is a big reason for the success that I’ve been able to have as a hockey player, and he really instilled in me the confidence and trust that I have as a player. He put me out there in pretty much every situation of every game and allowed me to grow. I was able to blossom under his tutelage and I’m definitely grateful for everything that he taught me.”
van Riemsdyk’s versatility was on display as the Leafs evened their home record at 4-4-0. The man known as “JVR” scored at even strength, on the power-play, and even showed some penalty killing prowess by maintaining possession of the puck for most of a third period PK shift, frustrating the Sabres who were trying to get back into the game.
“The skating was definitely the difference for him in tonight’s game,” said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle.
The opening twelve minutes of the game appeared to set the tone for a goalie duel, with Sabres netminder Ryan Miller making dazzling saves on Leo Komarov and Phil Kessel. Equal to the task, Leafs goalie Ben Scrivens got the better of NHL scoring leader Thomas Vanek with a pair of pad saves. Tyler Ennis eventually opened the scoring with a perfect shot over Scrivens’ blocker after Leafs defencemen Carl Gunnarsson was caught standing still.
Toronto finally solved Miller in the second period when Dion Phaneuf accepted a cross-ice feed from Phil Kessel and unleashed a cannon of a shot for the 100th goal of his NHL career.
From there van Riemsdyk took over, scoring the eventual winner on a two-on-one rush with Kessel as the setup man. His second marker came with the Leafs enjoying a 5-on-3 power-play in the third period. The insurance goal came just seconds after JVR – shooting from the same spot to the left of the goal from which he eventually scored – was stifled by another highlight reel save from – who else – Miller.
With the pair of goals, van Riemsdyk extends his team-leading goal total to 11 in just eighteen games played, matching his output from the entire 2011-12 season in which he played 43 games.
On the visitors’ side, Rolston appears to have his work cut out for him. Buffalo expended too much effort in attempting to run Scrivens, an interesting tactic considering that the team would be up in arms if the same strategy was used against Miller. Patrick Kaleta was fortunate to not receive a penalty in the first period when checking Scrivens behind the Leaf goal; in fact the Sabres were awarded a power-play after Mike Brown went after Kaleta.
Forward Kevin Porter was not smart enough to escape the sin-bin. His goaltender interference penalty in the second period took away an apparent Buffalo goal, although the tally may not have counted as Steve Ott appeared to bat the puck with a high stick. And Porter’s tripping infraction in the final frame was the first penalty leading to the Leafs two-man advantage on which van Riemsdyk capitalized.
Leafs and Marlies fans may hold a grudge against Porter as he was the Rochester Americans player who delivered the hit that led to Jake Gardiner’s concussion in an AHL game in November.
The Leafs head to Ottawa to face the Senators on Saturday night. The Sens received further bad news when goaltender Craig Anderson went down with an ankle injury. With Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson also on the shelf, Ottawa has more to worry about than whether their season ticket holders sell their seats to Leafs fans.
Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, and is a regular columnist at TMLfans.ca
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