TORONTO – When he lines up at centre ice, James van Riemsdyk has an idea of what he might attempt, but doesn't quite know for sure. Now tied for second in the league in shootout goals, the 24-year-old likes to see what the opposing goaltender has in store before he ultimately lands on a move.
He and the Leafs continue to find good fortune in the individual reality that is the shootout, now up to a league-leading nine victories following a 4-3 edging of the Sabres at the ACC on Wednesday night.
"The shootout is a game in itself obviously," said head coach Randy Carlyle afterward, his team boasting a 9-4 record in such situations. "When you win them it's a positive. When you lose them it's a negative. That's the bottom line.
"We're fortunate this year that our record in the shootout is a real strong positive for our hockey club and it's earned I don't know how many extra points."
Still trying to establish who and what they are, the Leafs have needed each and every one of the nine additional points they've gained from their success in the shootout. On a whole lot of nights, including Wednesday's against the league-worst Sabres, they've struggled to find a complete performance only to emerge with a victory of sorts in the shootout.
Carlyle assigns shootout selection duties to assistant coach Greg Cronin. His choices have narrowed recently around three shooters – van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul, and Tyler Bozak – each of whom has been better than 60 per cent on the season.
Leaf shooters have actually been among the most accurate in the league this season after posting the worst mark in 2013. Led by Lupul, who has scored on six of seven attempts, including the winner against Buffalo, Toronto owns a 48.6 per cent success mark in the shootout – good for second-best in the NHL.
Last season, a year in which they dropped every one of their five shootouts, the Leafs had the most futile shooters in the league – just 12.5 per cent on 24 attempts. Bozak, in fact, was the lone shooter to even score.
Toronto boasts eight shootout victories since the start of November, owning just five in regulation in that same span. Now streaking with wins in three consecutive games, they sit seventh in the East with 53 points.
"There's been a lot of extra points gained by it," said Carlyle of the shootout, which sealed the season series with Buffalo. "If we can continue to find a way to get points, that's what our job is [to] get ourselves back [on track] and climbing into a playoff position."
Rare is the night in which the Leafs have received offence from many different sources, but against the Sabres that was just the case. Each of the top three units accounted for a goal in victory, including Phil Kessel's 22nd of the year, Nik Kulemin's sixth and the second in the NHL career of Morgan Rielly, set up by generally quiet second unit (more on that below).
"It's always an advantage if you can get three lines providing certain levels of offence," said Carlyle, who moved Peter Holland onto a third unit recently in hopes of spurring more of an attack.
Toronto had scored eight goals in the previous three games, all of which came from a scorching top line of Kessel, van Riemsdyk and Bozak.
"We need everybody contributing," Carlyle continued. "If you look at the teams that are having success they've spread that offence around and they've been able to get quality minutes from everyone in their lineup."
Often over-dependent on that top unit – each member played more than 22 minutes vs. Buffalo – Wednesday marked just the 13th time in the past 35 games that the Leafs have managed three goals or more.
2. Second Line Slumber
Aside from an occasional burst or odd contribution – the line had a hand in the third goal from Rielly – Toronto's second line of Nazem Kadri, Mason Raymond and Joffrey Lupul has remained an infrequent source of offence.
Kadri has just one goal in the past 16 games, Raymond has two goals in the past 21, and Lupul, the most effective of the group recently, has still gone pointless in 12 of the past 18 outings.
A source of production for the trio earlier in the year, some of the trouble stems from lacking success on the power-play. Kadri has just one power-play point in the past 19 games, Raymond owns three in the past 21 and Lupul, just four in the previous 28 outings.
3. Reimer's Night
The first marker from Matt Ellis snuck through short side. The second goal, a Matt Moulson snipe from an odd-man Sabres rush, went post to post and under the bar, a slick shot from the former Islander. The final strike, a power-play marker from Hodgson, found an unlikely hole between Reimer and the post – one that still puzzled the 25-year-old afterward.
"I still don't really know how it went in," said Reimer, who earned his first win since Dec. 19. "My foot was against the post. That's my play. That's what I do. I'll look at the video and see if it squeaked in somewhere where I can close it. I do that every play, every time and it's never gone in."
4. Stacked Deck
Jonathan Bernier has unquestionably grabbed hold of the Toronto crease in recent weeks, but there's also no doubting that Reimer has been handed a bad deck of cards.
A look at the 25-year-old's five starts prior to Wednesday night and the poor performances which surrounded them:
• Dec. 12 at St. Louis: 6-3 L
Reimer's Night: 3 goals/15 shots*
Post-Game Quote: "Tonight it looked like we were totally brain-dead in a lot of areas." – Randy Carlyle
• Dec. 17 vs. Florida: 3-1 L
Reimer's Night: 3 goals/23 shots
Post-Game Quote: "We simply got embarrassed." – Mason Raymond
• Dec. 19 vs. Phoenix: 2-1 SOW
Reimer's Night: 1 goal/35 shots.
Post-Game Quote: "That's the one thing we know we can count on Reims for is compete level and battle." – Joffrey Lupul
• Dec. 21 vs. Detroit: 5-4 SOL
Reimer's Night: 3 goals/12 shots*
Post-Game Quote: "Obviously we didn't have a very good first period." – Randy Carlyle
• Jan. 9 at Carolina: 6-1 L
Reimer's Night: 6 goals/36 shots
Post-Game Quote: "We stood around for most of the hockey game tonight." – Randy Carlyle
*Pulled after the first period
5. Rielly's Progress
Morgan Rielly is now 40 games into his NHL career, adding his 13th point against the Sabres. The 19-year-old has, according to Carlyle, "taken some steps and then has taken a few sideways", evaluated with a similar lens as his 23-year-old defence partner Jake Gardiner.
"Our expectations for Morgan aren't as high as they are for Jake at this point just being where he is in his career," said Carlyle. "They're both talented young players. We think that there's a future for those two guys to be a big part of our defence. We want to make sure we're handling them the right way."
Unlike Gardiner, who was pulled from the lineup last week, Rielly has played in every game since early December, when he sat for three consecutive games with World Junior speculation swirling.
9 – Shootout victories this season, most in the NHL.
48.6 per cent - Effectiveness of Toronto shooters in the shootout this season.
1 – Goals in the past 16 games for Nazem Kadri.
5-6-0 – Record in the second end of back-to-back sets this season.
2 – Goals in the past 21 games for Mason Raymond.
3-1-1 – Record versus Buffalo this season.
4 – Consecutive games with a point for Phil Kessel. Kessel has two goals and eight points in that span.
23:33 – Ice-time for Kessel against the Sabres, most among forwards.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 22.1 per cent (5th)
Season: 77.5 per cent (27th)
Quote of the Night
"You're in the same locker room then you're in the same bus, the same plane, the same hotel. The hardest part is trying to stop it from going through the entire team. Those guys have kind of been quarantined off and the rest of us have been just washing our hands and trying to stay away from it."
-Joffrey Lupul, on stopping the spread of the flu bug through the Leafs dressing room.
The Leafs host Montreal at the ACC on Saturday.