TORONTO – As their number one goaltender and first line left winger inch back from injury, the Leafs continue to get significant contributions from the two men who have taken their place.
James van Riemsdyk scored his 10th and 11th goals of the season and Ben Scrivens made 31 saves as the Leafs won for the seventh time in 10 games this month, topping the Sabres by a 3-1 final at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday night.
Subbing on the top unit for the injured Joffrey Lupul, the 23-year-old van Riemsdyk continues his emergence as a nightly force in Toronto, now trailing only Thomas Vanek and James Neal in the Rocket Richard race with a pair against Buffalo. "I was always confident in myself that when I earned the opportunity to play those minutes and those situations that I'd be able to produce," he said after his team's third consecutive home victory. "So far I've been able to do that and I've got to continue to do that."
Coming off a weary performance in Tampa, which saw him leak four goals on 13 shots (following back-to-back shutouts), Scrivens was back on track against the Sabres, winning for the fourth time in place of the injured James Reimer. At his best early in the evening, the 26-year-old stopped 12 of 13 first period shots, including a pair of consecutive left pad stops on Vanek. "You try not to get too comfortable," Scrivens said of stepping into the opportunity injury has afforded him. "But obviously you're learning lessons and there's different experiences that you're going through that you gain a little bit of confidence."
Reimer joined his teammates briefly on the ice at Thursday's morning skate as he recovers from a left knee strain, but has yet to practice with the group, the most revealing indicator of how soon he will return. Lupul meanwhile, has had the cast removed from his fractured right forearm and began skating earlier this week. Sidelined since January 23, the 29-year-old is less than two weeks from the initial six-week timeline (minimum) of his injury.
Despite the loss of those two critical elements from their lineup, Reimer more recently, the Leafs continue to march forward and find ways to win (11-7-0 this season), keyed in part by the performances of van Riemsdyk and Scrivens. Randy Carlyle could face some intriguing decisions upon the return of Reimer and Lupul; Scrivens has certainly made the case for more opportunity as has van Riemsdyk, a comfortable fit with Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel.
Hinting at that sort of thinking, Carlyle noted of van Riemsdyk, "The tough part will be when Lupul gets back."
1. Franson, Phaneuf manning the powerplay points
More unique than unusual, the Leafs have – over the past eight or nine games – lined up two shooters, Dion Phaneuf and Cody Franson, on the point of the first powerplay unit, the thinking being that with Franson's shot looming as an option, they'll in turn open up room for Phaneuf's blast on the other point. ""We try and set him up for the one-timer, get him a little extra time to get it through and bring the power in there," Franson explained to TSN.ca before the game. "It just shows a bit of a different dynamic; it makes them think about two rather one." As if to illustrate the point, Phaneuf blasted his third goal of the season in one such instance on Thursday, firing a one-time pass from Kessel by Ryan Miller (Franson had the second assist) for Toronto's first goal. Later, it was Franson – off an initial feed from Phaneuf – finding an open seam to van Riemsdyk for the dagger.
The Leaf captain had just one powerplay point in the first 11 games this season, but has reeled off six points in the past seven games on the man advantage, all with Franson as his wingman. Formerly a Nashville Predator, the 25-year-old recalled the two-pronged attack the Predators once fronted with Ryan Suter (now with Minnesota) and Shea Weber. "It was one of those things where they had to respect [Suter] just as much as they had to respect [Weber] because [Suter] could hurt you too."
2. More JVR
"I really think that the skating was definitely the difference for him in tonight's game," Carlyle said of van Riemsdyk on Thursday. "He probably skated as strongly in this hockey game as any game he has this year." Killing penalties at one point against the Sabres, van Riemdsyk made a big loop around Miller in the Buffalo goal, before exiting the zone with puck in tow. Watching carefully on the home bench, Carlyle was reminded of Frank Mahovlich, the once great Leaf scorer, and thought to mention it to van Riemsdyk. "He probably doesn't know who the 'Big M' is," Carlyle chuckled. "That was a little inside joke on the bench. It's good to see him move his feet and be rewarded."
3. Even More JVR
Recently in conversation with TSN.ca, van Riemsdyk noted one big difference between now with the Leafs and then with the Flyers. "I just think I'm getting more of an opportunity," he said. "That's been my consistent theme is I knew last year I was confident in myself, I knew I could've had success. I didn't get that opportunity for whatever reason that was and I'm happy to have it here. That's pretty much it." In his final season with the Flyers, van Riemsdyk averaged about 15 minutes a game, including 2:47 on the powerplay and almost nothing on the penalty kill. After 18 games with the Leafs this season, he is up past a nightly 19 minutes, including 3:27 on the powerplay and an additional 1:10 on the penalty kill.
4. Gunnarsson injury not going away
While he has since returned from a hip injury which kept him out for eight games earlier this month – returning for his third game on Thursday – Carl Gunnarsson conceded to TSN.ca that the issue is not quite at full strength. "I think I'm going to be struggling a bit with this through the whole year," he said. "It's not going to be 100 per cent." The injury first cropped up during a lockout stint in Sweden, flaring up again prior to a game against Boston on February 2. "It had been going on for a bit," Gunnarsson said. "I just felt in the morning skate before the game that this is not good. It was a bit worse from the day before and I felt like this is going totally in the wrong way. I didn't feel that good." Gunnarsson indicated the injury as "not painful", but more an ache he had to contend with moving forward. He did not feel as though if it would require any surgical clean-up in the offseason, rest he was told by team doctors, would be the tonic. "Whenever we've got a day off – like [Wednesday], no skate – try to take the option if I can. Come in early every day, get some treatment, stay half an hour extra, just to get it right. Small things like that." The 26-year-old logged just under 23 minutes against the Sabres, second only to Phaneuf (23:49).
5. Gardiner nearly at full strength
Jake Gardiner continues to get his game back on track with the Marlies and is nearly at full strength. The biggest challenge for Gardiner, as Marlies assistant coach Gord Dineen explained in conversation with TSN.ca on Thursday afternoon, was retaining his "read of the game", the 22-year-old making especially strong strides over the past week. Dineen noted that Gardiner was back to skating with his accustomed grace and speed and had gradually regained his decisiveness when making plays with the puck. "Definitely see that he's had his best games," Dineen said of Gardiner's recent performance. Gardiner has been in and around 30 minutes most nights for the Marlies, including one such performance against Syracuse on Wednesday. Entering the evening with only five defenceman, the Marlies lost Jesse Blacker to injury early in the middle frame, forcing an even greater toll from the Leafs all-rookie defender last season. It's only a matter of time before the Minnesota native is recalled, but it's important to keep in mind that with three more NHL games, Gardiner would become eligible for waivers. Once he's up then, he'll be up for good. With unlikely stability on defence at the moment, the organization can wait just a little longer before pulling the trigger on his recall.
Quote of the Night
"I think I have room to get better still. There's some things I want to continue to do well, but there's definitely some things I can continue to work on."
-James van Riemsdyk, on his performance this season.
Quote of the Night II
"I really think that the skating was definitely the difference for him in tonight's game. He probably skated as strongly in this hockey game as any game he has this year."
-Randy Carlyle, on van Riemsdyk.
Quote of the Night III
"Even when I was with the Marlies and I was a starter there I had a similar mindset; you're not looking toward the end of the lockout, you're not thinking about another guy's contract at the end of the year and it's coming up and what's going to happen, it's 'I've got a game tonight, I've got to try and win it and make sure that I'm ready to go for it.'"
12: Assists for Kessel this season, including a pair against the Sabres.
8: Points in the last seven games for Phaneuf, including six on the man advantage.
4-40: Leaf powerplay at home this season, even with two goals on Thursday, third worst in the NHL.
28-30: The Leafs penalty kill over the past eight games, including a perfect 3-for-3 night against the Sabres. The unit now ranks 15th overall at 82.3 per cent.
10 of 11: Number of goals from van Riemsdyk scored within 21 feet.
3:49: Jay McClement average ice-time on the penalty kill, second among all NHL forwards.
18:20 – Jay McClement. With Colton Orr sidelined (lower body injury) the versatile 29-year-old rejoined Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin on the Toronto checking line, leading the team with four-plus minutes on the penalty kill.
The Leafs visit the nation's capital for the first time this season, set to clash with the ailing Senators on Saturday.