Brian Burke had to be secretly smiling somewhere.
After all, one of the former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager’s last acts with the roster was to land James van Riemsdyk, a big, skilled 23-year-old who was drafted second overall just five years earlier.
On Wednesday, the Leafs brass and fans finally got a look at what their newcomer could do.
Challenged by coach Randy Carlyle earlier this week to add more of an edge to his game, van Riemsdyk responded in his third game in blue and white, scoring two key goals in a 5-2 win to ruin the Pittsburgh Penguins' penalty-filled home opener.
His goals came in two styles, too: The first by crashing the net, as instructed, and the second on a pinpoint wrist shot after picking off an errant Evgeni Malkin pass in the offensive zone.
This a day after Carlyle called on the youngster to “go into the dirty areas” on the ice.
After a tentative first two outings, van Riemsdyk finally looked like the player the Philadelphia Flyers had been waiting to emerge the past three seasons.
“It’s always nice when you have a conversation with a player and he comes out and scores two goals and has a three-point night,” Carlyle said. “It wasn’t to criticize the player; it’s to motivate the player. He understood it. It’s not like he’s been terrible; it’s just that he needed to step up his game.”
“It’s always kind of that monkey-off-the-back-type feeling,” Van Riemsdyk said of getting his first of the season. “It gets you going a little bit.”
Van Riemsdyk’s breakout could be all the more vital given Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul – three days removed from a new five-year contract extension – left the game in the second period with a fractured right forearm after being hit by a Dion Phaneuf shot.
“Thanks for the support everyone,” Lupul wrote on Twitter shortly after the game. “I will be doing everything I can possibly do to be back as soon as possible.”
“It’s a big loss for our team,” Phaneuf added.
Lupul’s injury leaves Carlyle in search of a new top-line forward for up to several months, and this win presented him with a few candidates. Beyond van Riemsdyk, both Nazem Kadri – who added his third point in his third game on the Leafs' first goal – and Nikolai Kulemin – with three assists – had strong games.
“It’s not going to be one guy that can replace what he brings,” van Riemsdyk said. “It’s going to take a lot of guys stepping up.”
The Leafs forwards coming alive ensured that, even without Lupul, Toronto kept pace with Sidney Crosby and Malkin, who both scored their first goals of the season and looked like they may take the game over early on with Leafs netminder James Reimer struggling in his first start of the season.
After only scoring three goals in its first two games – all on the power play – Toronto’s suddenly rediscovered offence pumped four of their tallies at even strength past Marc-Andre Fleury in a 22-minute stretch in the middle of the game.
That offensive outburst helped cover up one of the Leafs' main concerns coming in: Reimer hadn’t played in 10 months, and even when he had prior to that, the after-effects of a serious concussion had slowed him down.
He was just 10-14-3 with a 3.20 goals-against average and .898 save percentage in 28 starts since the initial injury last season, and on both goals against Wednesday, there was some rust.
Malkin’s power-play marker to open the scoring beat him five hole from the side of the net, and Crosby appeared to fan on his shot – albeit on a breakaway – that scuttled under the netminder’s pad.
Early in the third period was then a bit of an adventure, with the Penguins narrowly whiffing on a wraparound and Reimer making a fortunate save immediately thereafter without ever seeing the puck.
His body of work wasn’t all bad, especially in the context of how little he’s played. He stopped Malkin in close to keep the scored tied at 1-1 moments before van Riemsdyk’s first goal gave Toronto its first lead and finished the night with 28 saves as the busier netminder on the night.
Ultimately, Reimer got the goal support – including two in the third from Mikhail Grabovski and Tyler Bozak – had help from his defence and stood his ground enough to win.
That was a feat in itself after so long away and the powerhouse Penguins fired up for their first game at home in more than eight months.
“I thought Reimer made some stops for us in the second period when it could have gotten away from us,” Carlyle said. “Held us in the game. All in all, it was the type of road game you have to play.”
“I felt I made a couple of mistakes,” Reimer said. “But maybe that’s par for the course for having some time off. Honestly, I thought our team played phenomenal. I thought we were really defensively sound... we limited them and most of [their chances] were coming from outside.”