James van Riemsdyk remembers it well.
After all, it was his fifteenth birthday, way back on May 4, 2004, and he watched at home in Middletown, N.J., as the Toronto Maple Leafs were wiped out in overtime by Jeremy Roenick and the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round of the playoffs.
It was also the last playoff game the Leafs played, with a stretch of seven seasons of near misses and ugly implosions ever since leaving the fan base far more skittish than many players from other organizations are used to.
“You get the feeling that everyone’s kind of holding their breath around here,” van Riemsdyk said of Toronto’s playoff drive. “The fans anyway, as far as the reaction you get on Twitter. They’re just waiting to see what happens.”
What’s been happening of late is a bucking of that nearly decade-long trend of futility, with the fellow known as JVR one of the ones playing a central role as the Leafs get points nearly every game of late.
The latest example came Monday, as he was the game’s first star with a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers, a victory that pushed yet another Eastern Conference team well back in the race.
With nine games to play, Toronto is now just two or three wins from a return to the postseason.
“That is the loudest I’ve heard the building when we scored that fourth one,” van Riemsdyk said of linemate Phil Kessel’s winner, which came on a bang-bang play between all three members of the Leafs top unit. “I can only speak for what I’ve been here for, but it’s been getting louder and louder every game.”
After a quiet start, there were a lot of reasons to cheer in this one, too.
Kessel entered the game on a nine-game goal drought but was dangerous most of the night, eventually beating Henrik Lundqvist for Toronto’s last two goals soon after the Rangers scored ugly ones to potentially swing the momentum.
His winner was the most impressive, coming just 39 seconds after New York had tied the game 3-3 and with 10 minutes to play.
After van Riemsdyk missed a shot in close, the trio turned a short, quick cycle along the boards in the offensive zone into a goal when Tyler Bozak sent Kessel in alone on Lundqvist.
“Any time you can get your big guns going in a crucial game, that’s a nice sign,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said afterward. “Tonight they were the recipients after some hard work on their part. Their line was a force out there.”
A subtler story was the continued strong play of the Leafs newcomers, with so many players who weren’t part of last year’s horrifying collapse showing the poise and mettle in these games down the stretch that simply hasn’t been there in the past.
Van Riemsdyk was the most obvious example on Monday, netting his 16th of the season – pushing him back up into the NHL’s top 20 scorers – and fighting for space in front of the net all night, including on Kessel’s first goal.
But he was hardly the only one.
Big defenceman Ryan O’Byrne – playing in his first game as a Leaf after being picked up at the trade deadline – also chipped in with a big goal, making it 2-0 by one-timing in a pretty Nazem Kadri pass for just his fifth goal in 301 NHL games.
“We unleashed him tonight,” Carlyle said. “He’s not known for his offensive prowess, but he was smart enough to get up on the play and take advantage of it. [Nazem] Kadri made a great pass and he made a real good shot.”
“You can't write it up any better than that,” O’Byrne quipped.
Then there were the pivotal penalty kill minutes logged by Jay McClement, Leo Komarov, Mark Fraser and others on what’s become the league’s third-best shorthanded unit – allowing just one goal in the last eight games – thanks to an almost entirely new cast.
The Rangers did fight back, with Rick Nash making Toronto’s second defence pair of Cody Franson and Fraser look silly on his two goals and Derek Stepan burning Komarov on a turnover-turned-breakaway to tie things late.
But, as has been the trend in this 7-1-3 stretch, the blown leads and defensive miscues didn’t rattle the Leafs, as even up 4-3 late in the third, they continued to put good chances of their own on Lundqvist.
With the rematch set for New York on Wednesday, this win further solidifies Toronto’s position in fifth in the East. With 48 points already banked and only nine games to play, they likely need as few as 52 to hang on in eighth.
Even if their sights are now set a little higher.
“We’ve found ways to get points in those games and that’s important for the confidence level of our group,” Carlyle said. “Yeah we have rough spots, and I think every team has rough spots. But in the game, we can regroup and readjust to get our game going.
“I thought the last five or six minutes [of the game] was probably as well as we’ve defended and played in a tense situation with a one-goal lead. We did a lot of things right.”
As for pondering what life will be like when the playoffs do arrive, for the first time in a long, long while, no one associated with the team is willing to go that far just yet.
“You can’t smell it until you’re there,” Van Riemsdyk said. “We know we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. One game at a time and nothing’s given to you. We know we have to keep battling until the last game of the season.
“Obviously everyone here [in the city] has been itching for that. But it’s tough to say until you really get there.”
More and more, it looks like they will be.