There was laughter on the Toronto Maple Leafs bench.
The Maple Leafs were a man short late in the second period and the Toronto players on the bench had just watched teammate James van Riemsdyk twice circle the Buffalo Sabres end before he exited to the neutral zone still with the puck.
The display of skill was unexpected from the 23-year-old forward. He can skate. He can score from in close. But he's not exactly known for his puckhandling and penalty killing exploits.
Still, the fine penalty-killing exhibition earned a roar from the Maple Leafs faithful at the Air Canada Centre and put a smile on the face of Toronto head coach Randy Carlyle.
"I immediately thought of the Big M [Frank Mahovlich]," Carlyle said after the Maple Leafs 3-1 win on Thursday. "I was going to tell him on the bench, but he probably didn't know who [the Big M] was."
If van Riemsdyk hadn't already endeared himself in Toronto with his strong play on the top line in the absence of injured forward Joffrey Lupul and that effort when a man short, he certainly did with the go-ahead goal two shifts later knocking in a perfect pass from linemate Phil Kessel. In the final 20 minutes, van Riemsdyk added an insurance marker in the third period.
The two-goal game increased van Riemsdyk's season total to a team-leading 11 in 18 games, just one shy of the league-leaders Thomas Vanek of the Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins sniper James Neal.
The new Maple Leafs forward was acquired by former Toronto general manager Brian Burke last summer from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Luke Schenn.
Lockout helped recovery
The four-month lockout was a mixed blessing. He was antsy to make an impression with his new team. But he also was in recovery mode from a concussion and nagging groin problem that limited van Riemsdyk to only 18 games last year.
When the puck finally dropped on the condensed 48-game schedule, Van Riemsdyk felt it was important to get off to a strong start in his new setting to win over his new teammates and the Maple Leafs fickle fan base. He has done just that.
"I still have better hockey ahead of me," he predicted.
Ron Rolston always thought so. The interim Sabres head coach, who was behind Buffalo's bench for the first time on Thursday, coached van Riemsdyk at the United States national team development program in Ann Arbor, Mich. for two seasons as well as with the U.S. under-18 and under-20 teams in 2007 and 2008.
Van Riemsdyk praised Rolston as a coach. The coach pushed the player to be better in their time together.
"He taught me a lot of stuff," van Riemsdyk said. "He used me in all kinds of situations. He gave me confidence.
"When you're a youngster you think you just go out and play hockey. He showed me the details of the game I needed to pay attention to."
Van Riemsdyk became a well-rounded player under Rolston. But he hasn't killed penalties since his days at the University of New Hampshire.
Carlyle saw a talented forward who can skate. He liked van Riemsdyk's young legs, his reach and his hockey sense. So for the first time in four NHL seasons the kid has added a new role to his game, and hasn't disappointed his new coach.
"We had to find a spot for him," said Carlyle, who was referring to van Riemsdyk third-line role at the start of the season.
"It will be tough when Lupul gets back."
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