There's a funny thing about coaching, Randy Carlyle was saying after his Toronto Maple Leafs showed they just might be catching on to what he's been teaching.
There never seems to be a single "Ah ha" moment when a young team suddenly grasps an idea and runs with it. Coaching is a series of "peaks and valleys" Carlyle said, where "you do an evaluation and say this they're getting it and then later you do another one and say, 'Where did it go?' "If you had the ability in this game to stop [the peaks and valleys] you would make a lot more money."
Well, right now Carlyle can enjoy one of the peaks as the Leafs went out Thursday night against the Buffalo Sabres and did what he'd been telling them for two days they need to do – go hard at a vulnerable opponent right from the start. The Leafs head coach was harping on that ever since his team dropped a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday because they did not start competing until the last few minutes.
It did take the Leafs a period to get going Thursday but once they did the struggling Sabres, who were playing their first game since head coach Lindy Ruff was fired and replaced by Ron Rolston, faded fast in a 3-1 decision, the Leafs' third win in their last four games.
"We didn't start very well but we got our skating going in the second period," Carlyle said. "If we get on the fore-check we feel we can grind teams down."
No one was skating harder than the line of Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, especially after they were embarrassed in the first period. Sabres wingers Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford left them behind on a rush with Ennis scoring the only goal of the period.
But from then on it was all Kessel and van Riemsdyk, with the latter showing his legs by circling the Sabres zone twice with the puck while killing a penalty and scoring twice to run his goals total to 11, third-best in the NHL along with the New York Islanders' John Tavares. Dion Phaneuf had the other Leafs' goal, a power-play blast from the point on a perfect set-up by Kessel.
"I really think the skating was the difference for him," Carlyle said of van Riemsdyk, who came to the Leafs last summer in a trade for defenceman Luke Schenn by former Leaf general manager Brian Burke that is looking better by the day. "That was probably as strong as any game he's played for us."
Van Riemsdyk, 23, who has heeded Carlyle's advice to use his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame more to crash the net, thinks there are still lessons to be learned.
"There's some consistency needed," he said before deciding to keep the specifics of what he needs to improve "to myself."
Van Riemsdyk is being given the room to grow by Carlyle, who is using him now in different situations, such as killing penalties. Van Riemsdyk shone against the Sabres in that regard, as shown by his double circle of their zone in the second period.
Carlyle said the coaches were joking on the bench it was reminiscent of a certain Leaf great from the 1960s and '70s, Frank Mahovlich, who had the same lanky build and was one of the fastest men in the league.
"We said he looked like the Big M out there," Carlyle said. "He probably doesn't know who the Big M is; that's what we were joking about on the bench."
Van Riemsdyk said he wasn't trying to be a hot dog on the play. He only made the second circle because one of the Sabres closed off a path to the net on the first one. But he admitted he is getting the confidence to do that sort of thing more often.
"I've been put out there in some good situations," van Riemsdyk said. "I was always confident if I was put in those situations I could produce."
The Leafs' next game is in Ottawa on Saturday against the injury-riddled Sabres. Carlyle said he hopes to find out Friday the extent of winger Colton Orr's undisclosed injury. He was scratched from the game after the problem surfaced in the morning skate. He will have a magnetic resonance imaging scan on Friday morning.