PITTSBURGH – As the 2012 NHL Draft wrapped up at the Consol Energy Center this past June, the Leafs pulled the trigger on a deal that delivered 23-year-old James van Riemsdyk to Toronto.
In the very same building seven months later, the towering young winger offered a taste of what they had in mind, sniping a pair of goals and adding an assist as the Leafs stunned the Penguins 5-2 in their home opener on Wednesday night.
"It's always kind of that monkey off the back type feeling," said van Riemsdyk of his first goals with the Leafs.
It was only a day earlier that head coach Randy Carlyle voiced constructive concerns of the six-foot-three New Jersey native, suggesting he visit the so-called "dirty areas" more often while making better use of his hulking stature.
"It's always nice when you have a conversation with a player about getting into the dirty areas and he comes out and scores two goals and has an assist," said Carlyle with a grin. "I guess you'd have to say you'd be pretty happy with that, but it's not done specifically to criticize the player, it's to motivate the player and to help him."
"I didn't think I changed too much," van Riemsdyk charged, lining up with Mikhail Grabovski and Nik Kulemin for the first time on Wednesday. "I tried to maybe use my speed a little bit more out there and stop thinking as much.
"I know I still can continue to get better, but I've just got to continue to do some of the things that are a staple of my game … get to the net and I've got to continue to use my speed a little bit more and just do things like that, win battles and go from there."
Charging to the front of the net in the middle frame, van Riemsdyk deposited a Kulemin crossing feed, jamming it past Marc-Andre Fleury for the Leafs' second goal. Less than 10 minutes later, he snatched an Evgeni Malkin clearing attempt and snapped it high past Fleury for the eventual game-winner.
They were two promising snap-shots of what the organization envisioned when they swung the trade that saw Luke Schenn land in Philadelphia.
"It's not like he's been terrible," said Carlyle of the previous two games, which saw van Riemsdyk pointless and looking out of place, "it's just that he needed to step up his game. We need his physical presence and him taking the puck to the net. We need that offence."
1. The Leafs will need that offence even more with Joffrey Lupul set to hit the shelf. Lupul was stung with a fractured right forearm on Wednesday, nailed by a Dion Phaneuf point shot, an instant grimace and wave of pain appearing on his face as he left the ice in the second period. "He's definitely a guy that we're going to miss," said van Riemsdyk. "It's not going to be one guy that can replace what he brings to the table, it's going to take a lot of people stepping up, not only on the ice but being a leader off the ice, too." The timing could not have been worse for the 29-year-old. Over the weekend, he signed a five-year extension with the Leafs and was named an alternate captain to Phaneuf. With Lupul sidelined, an opportunity could be looming for Matt Frattin, one of the final two cuts at training camp. Tim Connolly could also figure in the mix.
2. James Reimer made his first start in exactly 10 months – 306 days – stopping 28 shots for his first win of the season. "I made a couple mistakes," said Reimer, "but maybe that's par for the course for having some time off." Surprising at first glance – considering the imposing nature of the opponent – Carlyle offered a logical explanation for inserting the 24-year-old on Wednesday. "He hadn't played in such a long time where Scrivens had played," said Carlyle, "it made the decision pretty easy going to [Scrivens]. But we knew at some point we were going to have to pick a game and start James Reimer and tonight was the night we picked." The two markers that beat him on Wednesday were both pucks that need to be stopped – Evgeni Malkin snuck one through from the goal-line and Sidney Crosby flubbed on a breakaway attempt – but Reimer battled, even coming up with a few critical saves in the second frame. "Maybe I was little more nervous or excited, whatever the emotion may be," he said of nerves entering the night. "It was a little more special of a game maybe and so that makes it even better that, as a team, we were able to get the win." Reimer is now 3-0-1 lifetime against Pittsburgh.
3. Also making his season debut in the victory was 22-year-old Jake Gardiner, who had been out since December 8th with a concussion. Enduring his first full practice with teammates on Tuesday, Gardiner had to convince both the coaches and medical staff that he was ready to return. "I just had to feel good and they said when you're ready, you're ready so I just told them I was ready and they said you're going. I was pretty excited about it," he said. Given the go-ahead at the afternoon pre-game meal, Gardiner logged slightly over 17 minutes, looking like a player who had been out for a month-plus. Paired with John-Michael Liles, he lacked the usual zip to his step and his timing appeared off, all to be expected given the long layoff.
4. Seeking to motivate van Riemsdyk on Tuesday, Carlyle offered the following insight into what ailed the big winger. "He's got to go into the dirty areas a little bit more and that's one of the things we're going to ask of him," said Carlyle. "He's a big man, who can go to the front of the net. He's got soft hands around the net. We want to see him drive that puck to that area, push people off the puck." "He's got to do what he has to do and my job as a player is to go out there and perform," van Riemsdyk responded on Wednesday morning. "I think I've been doing a lot of good things out there; I've been responsible defensively, I've been getting to the front of the net and creating some havoc. Sometimes it just takes that one bounce to get yourself going. I know it's not from lack of effort; I know I've been working hard, winning battles, I've just got to get more comfortable with some of the stuff we're doing and hopefully gain some confidence from that."
5. Another player with whom Carlyle managed to successfully motivate Wednesday was the aforementioned Grabovski. The 28-year-old picked up his first points of the season, scoring once and adding an assist. He and Carlyle shared a conversation toward the end of the morning skate. "He has to play with more fire and more of his natural personality versus what we're seeing now," said Carlyle prior to the game. "The reality for him is that we need more fire and more nastiness from him." Grabovski hadn't attempted a shot in the opening two games and was missing his usual pop. "I feel good, but I need more fire," he conceded before the game. Totaling about 16 minutes, Grabovski also finished 11-18 (67 per cent) on the draw and helped slow the Malkin-James Neal combination at even-strength. "He played with more fire," said Carlyle after the game. "The one thing that you do notice when his tenacity level is way up there, he's on the puck, he's hack-slash and he's got other people upset with the way he's playing. I think that's a great trademark."
Quote of the Night I
"I need to put gas in my tank."
- Mikhail Grabovski, responding to Randy Carlyle's request for greater tenacity.
Quote of the Night II
"I could go tonight and just leave the lines exactly the same. Sneaky, huh?"
- Randy Carlyle, hinting that scrambled line combinations could be nothing more than a mirage.
Stat Watch I
Clarke MacArthur scored the Leafs first even-strength goal of the season early in the second period.
Stat Watch II
Three assists, plus-3 rating for Nik Kulemin, who had struggled in the opening two games.
Stat Watch III
Historically a quick starter, Phil Kessel has yet to score thus far, despite a number of chances.
Carlyle hoped to find more ice-time for Nazem Kadri on Wednesday, but the 22-year-old logged just over 12 minutes, adding a point for the third straight game.
Under the Radar
After a solid debut against Montreal on Saturday, Mike Komisarek sat two nights later in the home opener against Buffalo. He returned to the lineup on Wednesday, totaling 14-plus minutes with a plus-3 rating.
The Leafs return home to the Air Canada Centre Thursday for the second end of a back-to-back set against the New York Islanders.