James van Riemsdyk has seen his team dig itself out of deeper playoff series hole against the Boston Bruins before.
That was three years ago, and his sweater was decidedly orangier, but the mindset hasn’t changed one iota. And the 24-year-old has passed the lessons learned from that experience along to his teammates.
Playing as a rookie for the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers, van Riemsdyk scored his club’s first goal in the Flyers’ eventual come-from-behind classic Game 7 victory over the Bruins in their Eastern Conference semifinal battle.
Three springs ago, Boston had Philadelphia in a stranglehold in both the series and that seventh game, leading each 3-0, but the Flyers refused to submit. Philly’s remarkable comeback in that series would eventually lead to a Stanley Cup finals appearance and 21 games of postseason hockey under the belt of Number 21, then just 21 years old.
So if those Flyers can rally from 0-3 in their series, what's to stop van Riemsdyk's new team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, rebounding from 1-3 to claim their opening-round series against a Bruins team that still dresses many of the same characters?
Nothing, van Riemsdyk, explained, first to his curious teammates and later to a few reporters. If you commit to a step-by-step mindset.
Sure, "one game at a time" is a sporting cliche. But that's because it can work. Ask the '10 Flyers.
“If you take a step back and look at it, it’s a huge mountain. But if you compartmentalize it and say, ‘OK, we’re going to have a good practice, then a good first period, then a good game, and hopefully we get a chance to have another game,’ (it's doable),” the power forward said after unlacing his skates following Sunday night's 2-1 Game 6 victory. "We’ve gotten better and better as the series has gone on, but we’ve got to play our best game (Monday).”
One gets the sense that for JVR and the rest of the Leafs -- suddenly an underdog team with a growing nation of supporters -- that shift-by-shift approach isn't just something safe to trot out for the microphones (although it is that too) but a necessary strategy when a good team punishes you with a scoring chance every time you make a mistake.
Van Riemsdyk shoots down the notion of the Leafs -- most of whom made their playoff debut in Game 1 of this series -- are benefiting from youth and naiveté. Experience, he asserts, counts in the playoffs.
“We have a lot of character in this room. We never looked at it as ‘oh shit’ or anything. Excuse my French. We knew what we had in front of us," van Riemsdyk said.
With 39 playoffs games played going into this series, though, van Reimsdyk knew better than most what was in front of them. Which is why a few of the less-experienced Leafs approached van Riemsdyk and asked him how those Flyers of three seasons ago clawed their way up that mountain.
“You try to have that chatter within the locker room. You can’t get overwhelmed by the situation you’re in. You gotta dial in to the game, the present. You’re going to do it one game at a time and focus on what’s right in front of you, and I think we’ve obviously done that, but the job is far from over,” van Riemsdyk said. "Not a lot of guys get a chance to play in a Game 7 in their career, and it’s an honour and a privilege to play in them.”
It's an even bigger honour to win one when you've trailed the series 3-0. Only three teams have done it.
Down three games to one isn't much easier. If JVR and the Leafs do complete the comeback Monday night at TD garden, it will be the first time Toronto has recovered from a 3-1 series deficit since 1942.