No one knows the situation the Toronto Maple Leafs are facing quite like James van Riemsdyk.
Playing for an underdog team that’s down in a playoff series, by more than a game, to a higher seeded Boston Bruins club?
Been there. Done that.
That’s a tidbit that will be referenced frequently here the longer this series between the Leafs and Bruins stretches on, especially given van Riemsdyk was a rookie on the Philadelphia Flyers team that famously came back from down 3-0 to the Bruins three years ago.
The similarities between that Boston team and the current edition are certainly there on the roster – about a dozen regulars remain in the lineup – but in the interim, they won a Stanley Cup and established themselves as one of the best teams in the East.
Even so, the Bruins inability to win “close out” games is already getting attention from the Boston media, and van Riemsdyk is getting attention from being a member of the opposition in one of those series.
To his credit, he had some interesting answers on the subject on Sunday as the Leafs prepared for Game 6, musing on what he had learned in being part of one of the only 3-0 comebacks in league history.
“If you look at the big picture at a time like that, you can tend to overwhelm yourself,” van Riemsdyk said of the advice he has for his teammates in this situation, trying to pull off a 3-1 comeback. “I think just reiterating stuff like that is what you need to do.
“It’s tough to compare something like that [between the Flyers and Leafs teams], but at the same time, you’ve got to have that belief in yourselves and I think we have that belief that we can go out there and win a game. We know it’s going to be a big challenge.”
The Leafs task in this series obviously isn’t nearly as tall as what Philadelphia was facing, even if only 24 of the 262 teams down 3-1 have ever won the series (9.2 per cent).
Toronto’s 2-1 win on Friday in Boston improved them to 3-2, meaning if they can finally win a home game in this series on Sunday, it will set up a wild Game 7 finale the very next night back at TD Garden.
Aside from a lopsided loss in Game 1, Toronto has essentially played Boston to a draw in the series, with a narrow loss in Game 4 in overtime seeming to buoy their confidence more than deflate it.
The Bruins also now have to shuffle their lineup yet again with defenceman Andrew Ference not making the trip to Toronto due to an undisclosed injury, an absence that didn’t do Boston any favours when Ference came out in Game 2 due to a suspension.
Not that the Leafs are taking anything for granted.
“We’re going to have to play extremely well here,” Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said on Sunday. “They’re going to come hard. We know that.”
“We’re not going to expect anything other than Boston’s best,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle added. “And I’m sure it’ll come early and it’ll come often. We have to put ourselves in a situation where we can control the puck and do a lot of attacking ourselves.”
Who has had the puck?
Other than Game 1, the Bruins and Leafs first round series has been remarkably close in puck possession, with Boston averaging 42 shots a game and Toronto 40 in the last four games.
Praise for JVR
With van Riemsdyk an obvious topic of conversation leading into Game 6, Carlyle offered a good take on the 24-year-old winger’s evolution, noting that he has improved his game and adapted to what they’ve asked for as the season went along.
After a bumpy beginning, that’s led to van Riemsdyk becoming one of Carlyle’s favourite players on the team, something evidenced by how often he’s been used in this series.
He is second among Leafs forwards in ice time, logging nearly 20 minutes a game, and leads the team in shots on goal with 27 after five games.
“Our pro scouts felt he could come in and make a contribution as a power forward,” Carlyle said of the off-season trade that brought in van Riemsdyk from the Flyers in exchange for defenceman Luke Schenn.
“Youth is on his side – he’s not a very old guy. But he’s got enough experience that when he first got here, his understanding and our understanding [of how he should play] probably didn’t align. There were some things we felt he had to change about how he played and where he played and where he was going to make his money.
“We told him he had to camp in front of the net. If he didn’t want to do that, we’d put somebody else there. From that point on, he made that decision he was going to go to those tough areas and make a living there. And he’s been rewarded for his tenacity, his will and his courage to do that. He’s got great hands for a big man.”
And, for a young player, plenty of experience at playoff comebacks, too.