TORONTO – James van Riemsdyk got his first glimpse of Phil Kessel at the 2005 World Junior Hockey Championship in North Dakota. He's been a fan ever since.
Kessel erased his second longest dry spell of the year with a pair of goals on Monday evening, adding an assist and the eventual game-winner as the Leafs held off the Rangers in a testy, playoff-like battle at the Air Canada Centre.
"I always knew how good of a player he was," said van Riemsdyk, who scored his 16th goal of the year in the 4-3 victory, opening the night's scoring against New York. "I've been watching his career since he started at the World Juniors in North Dakota and then being at [the University of New Hampshire] while he was in Boston got to watch him quite a bit. And then he's obviously one of the guys you see throughout the league; he's always on the highlights, always scoring goals, creating offence. He's been a fun guy to play with. He's got a lot of abilities that other guys don't have. He's a special player."
Now with 12 goals and 38 points on the year, Kessel hadn't scored in nine games – he opened the year with a 10-game drought – but he led the way for the Leafs and their top line opposite the Rangers and their second unit of Brad Richards, Ryan Clowe and Mats Zuccarello.
Joined by his usual complement of van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, Kessel sniped his first of two five-hole through Henrik Lundqvist on a power-play late in the middle frame, sneaking the eventual winner past the reigning Vezina Trophy winner only 39 seconds after Derek Stepan had erased a two-goal Toronto lead.
"It's been a while right," Kessel grinned afterward of the recent dry spell. "It was a good win for us."
That it was. Now with at least a victory against every team in the conference, Monday's win pushed the Leafs to 48 points this season – good for fiffh in the East – a full six points up on the Rangers (and Islanders) with nine games to go, including the second half of a home-and-home set at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.
1. Change in style
From the day he took over in Montreal last March, Randy Carlyle demanded that his Leafs not rely so heavily on the run-and-gun attack favoured by his predecessor, Ron Wilson. In the line of focus was Kessel, who amassed a career-high 37 goals and 82 points last season, much of it off the rush. "We've always said that he can create offence by himself, but we're asking [for] more of a cycle game and those things are things that he's adjusted to," said Carlyle. "And that's a feather in his cap because you can't play one-dimensional hockey in the NHL. You can play it for a while in your career, but if you're going to see the best players, they usually have the puck and they cycle the puck and they're not just rush players. I think that's an area that he's improved in massively for our group." Kessel's second goal of the evening came off such grunt work, van Riemsdyk outmuscling a couple Rangers along the boards for the puck before finding Bozak, who fed Kessel in tight on Lundqvist.
2. Impressions of Kessel
Paired with his fellow American since the sixth game of the year, van Riemsdyk recalled what first caught his eye back at the Junior tournament in 2005. "I think just his speed and his shot," said van Riemsdyk, "how it snapped off his stick. There's guys that have hard shots, but it seems to go to another level off his stick and it's just a snapper, but it's pretty hard to stop for the goalies." van Riemsdyk was camped in front of Lundqvist on Kessel's first goal, the puck finding its way five-hole through the Swedish netminder. "He beats goalies just clean through the five-hole which not many guys can do," added van Riemsdyk, who has points in four of the past five games and logged nearly 23 minutes against the Rangers, "especially from as far out as he's doing it from."
3. Protecting a late lead
The Rangers scored twice in the opening nine minutes of the third frame to erase a 3-1 Toronto lead, Kessel scoring 39 seconds later to regain the margin for good. "That's probably as well as we've defended and played in a tense situation with a one-goal lead," Carlyle said of his team's effort in the final minutes. "We did a lot of things right, we moved the puck up the side walls, we created some offensive zone time, we didn't turn the puck over."
The Leafs improved to 17-2-1 when leading after two periods, a trend that was kept intact at the end of Monday's performance. "We've found ways to get points in those games," Carlyle noted of instances where his team lost a lead. "I just thought our group played extremely hard, they were determined and we had a contribution from everybody."
4. Leafs vs. Nash
Employing his six-foot-four, 200-plus pound frame, Rick Nash sprung for a pair against the Leafs, both goals a product of stature and speed. "You just try and be big and hang in there," James Reimer said of opposing Nash, Monday marking just his second career start against the Rangers and first win. "He's a good player and he comes with a lot of speed and a lot of size; he uses that to his advantage, obviously he's a good power forward." Following an offensive zone turnover from Mikhail Grabovski, Nash dashed hard around Cody Franson into the blue paint, the puck squirting past Reimer for the Rangers' first goal. His second effort was another tremendous display of power, the Brampton native bursting around Mark Fraser and into the slot before depositing the puck high above the Leafs keeper. In both instances, Nash was able to find room when Toronto's top pair of Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson were not on the ice. "I thought we contained him for the most part," said Reimer of Nash, who had two assists in the first meeting between the two clubs this season, "but he makes the most out of his chances usually so we'll keep playing him hard and hopefully we can get another two points in New York."
Matched up against the Rangers third-line trio of Derick Brassard, Brian Boyle, and Carl Hagelin, Nazem Kadri played just under 13 minutes on Monday night, his third lowest total of the season and slimmest mark since February 5. After a Saturday win in New Jersey, Carlyle noted that Kadri was "standing still making plays" and needed to overcome a mini "speed-bump". The Leafs coach rejected the notion of fatigue for the 22-year-old, who has played in 66 games this year, including 27 with the Marlies before the lockout. "Fatigue's an excuse," said Carlyle. "We're not about excuses. He's a hockey player, go out there and work and move your feet because when he does it, he's a dynamic young player [and] when he doesn't, standing still trying to make plays and beat people, not many people get away with that in the NHL and I don't think he's any different than anybody else."
Generally quiet, Kadri did notch an assist on Ryan O'Byrne's first as a Leaf. Of greater intrigue was the night for Grabovski, who logged a season-low 10:39, tallying just four shifts following an offensive zone turnover which resulted in the Rangers first goal. Joined by Leo Komarov and Jay McClement on a shutdown line that opposed Nash, Stepan and Ryan Callahan, Grabovski was eventually removed from the unit entirely in the third frame, replaced by Nik Kulemin.
Quote of the Night
"Can't smell it 'til you're there."
- James van Riemsdyk, asked if the Leafs could smell the postseason after Monday's victory.
38: Points for Phil Kessel this season, tied for 14th in league scoring.
14: Games without a power-play goal for Kessel before his fourth of the season on Monday evening.
11: Multi-point outings for Kessel this season.
16: Goals this year for James van Riemsdyk, five back of matching a career-high.
83-90: Penalty kill over the past 28 games, including a perfect 2-2 effort against the Rangers. The unit ranks third overall at 86.9 percent.
10:39: Mikhail Grabovski, a season-low.
Minute Watch II
23:28: Tyler Bozak, a season-high.
The Leafs conclude a home-and-home set with the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday evening.