TORONTO – The earliest foundations of the partnership that would rally the Leafs to victory on Tuesday night began almost 10 years earlier in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Then an 18-year-old, Phil Kessel had just completed his second season with the U.S. National Development Team Program and was headed to the University of Minnesota. Nearly two years younger, James van Riemsdyk was just arriving.
“We got to watch their highlight film the first day at the program,” van Riemsdyk recalled of a team that featured Kessel and Patrick Kane. “They were just showing us what the two years of work will get you. You see a lot of highlights of his goals. He's definitely a special player to watch.”
Running and gunning with van Riemsdyk after a three-game slowdown of just one point, Kessel would net his fourth career hat trick – second in Toronto – lifting the Leafs from a two-game losing skid and beyond a Ducks squad that had won seven straight.
“JVR made two great passes to me and was fortunate to bury both of them,” Kessel said succinctly afterward.
His team desperately needed the lift.
Full of tension in the first 20 minutes against Anaheim, the Leafs would muster just two shots on Jonas Hiller – down 1-0 – the third time in a week they had managed fewer than three shots in a period.
“The first period we were awful tight,” said Randy Carlyle of the early effort, imploring his team to “relax” in the first intermission.
Though Hiller would rob Jay McClement with a theatrical glove save on the first shot of the frame that followed – Mathieu Perrault had upped the lead to two – the Leafs would lose some tension and find some energy.
A man advantage fewer than two minutes later – Corey Perry whistled for boarding – would swing the door open for the team's top duo, quiet three nights earlier in a one-sided loss to Chicago.
Snatching a rebound from just beyond the blue paint, van Riemsdyk, falling to the ice, would twirl around and find an open Kessel on the door-step for the Leafs first goal.
Dion Phaneuf would even the proceedings at two just over a minute later.
The Leafs would go on to erase a lengthy 5-on-3 advantage later in the period before Kessel and van Riemsdyk would connect once more.
Bursting down the right side, Kessel would employ his towering linemate as a decoy, firing a laser under the bar and beyond the blocker of Hiller. “I was just trying to drive and hopefully get the goalie distracted a little bit,” van Riemsdyk said of Kessel's go-ahead goal. “I don't think he really needed me to do that because he put it right under the bar, right in the elbow. No goalie's going to stop that.”
He and the 26-year-old would put a wrap on the evening in the third.
Charging with speed on yet another odd-man rush, van Riemsdyk would feather a backhand pass beyond the last defence of a sprawling Francois Beauchemin, Kessel tapping it in for his second Leaf hat trick.
“He made some great shots tonight and showed why he has that world-class finishing ability,” van Riemsdyk concluded.
1. Kessel Recollections
JVR first learned of his future teammate when he watched the 2005 World Junior Championships. There in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Kessel scored four goals and six points in seven games.
“I see this guy, what was he? 16? 17-years old, and he was just flying down the wing, toe-dragging guys and putting it low-blocker,” van Riemsdyk recalled.
Playing alongside younger brother Blake Kessel at the University of New Hampshire, van Riemsdyk met the elder Kessel on occasion, even attending the odd Bruins game with his Wildcats teammate.
2. Searching for Identity
Randy Carlyle requested an increase in work ethic before facing his former Ducks squad for the first time since being fired in the winter of 2011. “We haven't looked back on many games this year and said we've outworked the opposition,” he said before the game. “Our work ethic has to be elevated to a point where we can create more of an identity for ourselves. I don't know if we can say what type of hockey club we are yet.”
That identity began to establish itself in the opening minutes of the second frame, the Leafs creating havoc with improved pressure on the Ducks defence. “Our hockey club is based upon our ability to get in on the puck,” Carlyle would note of the forecheck after the game.
Speaking prior to the victory, Carlyle suggested that underlying elements such as the forecheck would improve with greater intensity. “And once we start to establish more of that dogged work ethic then I think the other things will fall into place,” he explained. “And it's not that we haven't worked hard, it's just that we haven't worked hard enough in the small areas of the ice and haven't won enough one-on-one battles to establish any momentum and keep the momentum going.”
3. Shots vs. Scoring Chances
The Leafs allowed a season-low 25 shots against Anaheim, the first time all year they yielded fewer than 30.
Never in Los Angeles did Jonathan Bernier face the nightly quantity of shots that have come his way early as a Leaf, but as he explained to the Leaf Report, shot totals form only one half of the picture. “It's more the scoring chances,” said Bernier. “You can look at having 40 shots and five scoring chances it's going to be a pretty easy night. But if you get 20 shots and 16 scoring chances that's going to be a really tough night.”
“It's all about where you get your shots from,” he continued. “If you get them from the outside and you control your rebounds all night that's going to be a pretty easy night.”
All that being said, “In a 40-shot [night] usually you'll get more scoring chances against than on a 20-shot night.”
Bernier stopped all but two of 25 Anaheim shots. He made his best stop to preserve the Leafs lead early in the third. Sprawling with both pads flaring outward, his left pad would keep a Teemu Selanne shot on the outside.
4. Draft Day
Jake Gardiner was picked 17th overall by the Ducks in 2008. “It was one of my most memorable days I'd say,” he recalled in conversation with the Leaf Report. “I remember my Dad just being so excited for me; I think he was a little bit more excited than I was.”
All the speculation that day in Ottawa had Gardiner either going to the Ducks at 17 or the Senators at 15. Ottawa sprung for Erik Karlsson with their first pick, the Ducks landing Gardiner two spots later.
“You're surprised,” he said of hearing your name called. “You never think you're going to go in the first round of the NHL Draft when you're a kid. Obviously everybody wants to, but it's never that realistic. And then when it actually happens it's a crazy feeling. That day, being said, it's special, but at the same time you're not in the NHL yet; some guys think you are but there's a lot of work to be done.”
Gardiner logged 21 and a half minutes on Tuesday night.
5. Bozak on the Draw
Tyler Bozak entered Tuesday in midst of a year-long struggle on the draw – 47.2 per cent, 65th among qualifying centres – but he got the job done against the Ducks. Bozak finished 12-24, including 4-5 in the defensive zone opposite Ryan Getzlaf.
“You get bounces,” he said before the game. “I'll go on a 10-game stretch where I'll get all the 50/50 bounces and my wingers will get the bounces and they'll come back to our D and I'll win them. They're not all clean and they never will be all clean wins and losses; a lot of it is other things. Just haven't maybe been getting the bounces, obviously haven't been winning as many as I want, but hopefully just key in on the defensive zone ones, win those most importantly and go from there.”
4 – Career hat tricks for Phil Kessel, including his second as a Leaf against Anaheim.
25 – Shots for the Ducks, the fewest the Leafs have allowed all season.
2 – Number of shots for the Leafs in the first frame against Anaheim.
3 – Number of periods this season that the Leafs have registered three or fewer shots.
11 – Points for Phil Kessel this season, leading the team.
Special Teams Capsule
Quote of the Night
“You can tell when your group can't make a 20-foot pass to somebody who's wide open.”
-Randy Carlyle on how he knew his group was pressing early against the Ducks.
David Clarkson makes his debut when the Leafs visit the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Friday.