Leafs’ JVR integral in Kessel’s big night

Phil Kessel's three-goal performance headlined the Toronto Maple Leafs' 4-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night, but the role of James van Riemsdyk can't be overlooked.

Phil Kessel’s three-goal night was in no small part due to linemate James van Riemsdyk’s ability to wear different hats. And when those two players are working in perfect tandem, you can’t count out the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Kessel’s three-goal performance headlined the Maple Leafs’ 4-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night, but the role of van Riemsdyk can’t be overlooked. He did the dirty work on Kessel’s first goal; played decoy on the second and was the pure setup man on the one that gave Kessel his second hat trick as a Leaf and fourth in the NHL.

And the timing couldn’t have been better.

Down 2-0 to a strong Ducks team seven minutes into the second period, Toronto-which had just two first-period shots-appeared to be wandering toward a third consecutive loss. But Kessel’s two second-period goals demonstrated the diverse damage he and van Riemsdyk can do when they’re on their game. The first tally was a tap-in on the power play because van Riemsdyk parked his posterior in front of Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller, tracked a loose puck through a sea of sticks and listened to his instincts from the spot the Leafs want him to live, the lip of the crease.

“That’s a place I really like to play on the rink, it’s fun kind of mixing it up in there with different guys in front of the net,” he said. “Phil’s good at finding those soft areas and I usually don’t even really have to look, I just know where he’s going to be.”

After captain Dion Phaneuf tied the game, Kessel took advantage of a Ducks turnover and headed up ice on a 2-on-1 with van Riemsdyk. As he drew closer to Hiller, Kessel was leaning the opposite way of everyone who has ever seen him shoot a puck.

“I was thinking pass, actually, but (Cam) Fowler, I think, took it away and I was fortunate to beat him under the bar.”

Don’t let the hockey humility fool you. What Kessel actually did on that play was answer the $64-million question — as in, the reason the Leafs happily committed that much money to him in a contract extension before the season is because he can take a goalie like Hiller, who’d made two spectacular saves in the middle frame, and make him look downright inconsequential with the flick of a wrist.

Kessel, like his team, hadn’t been having the greatest go of late. The right winger had gone four games without finding the back of the net, and the three goals he scored against the Ducks represented one more than he had on the season entering the contest. Therein lies the rub with the Leafs and their top sniper; you’re not always going to be enamored of everything they do, but it doesn’t take much daylight-just a crack-for them to shine.

It happened again in the third, when Kessel and van Riemsdyk teed up another 2-on-1, this time with the latter slipping the former a nifty pass that was converted with deadly precision.

“Those are some serious goal-scorer goals,” Phaneuf said of Kessel’s final two tallies.

Phil the Finisher; even if he’s been quiet for a while, you know he won’t be gone long. And when he returns, it will be with that signature shot that instantly excuses any absence and reminds everybody why Kessel and the Leafs stand to have a wonderful long-term relationship.

“I love the city and I love the fans, so it’s a good night,” he said.

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