Maple Leafs have got their mojo back

TORONTO -- No one is going to confuse James van Riemsdyk for Yoda.

But the Toronto Maple Leafs winger was indeed dishing out wisdom when approached by teammates after his squad went down 3-1 in its first-round series with the Boston Bruins.

It was just three years ago that young Mr. van Riemsdyk was on the Philadelphia Flyers team that reversed a 3-0 series deficit on these very Bruins and put one in the history books with an unforgettable seven-game series win.

The advice from JVR-Yoda?

"You talk about how you can’t get overwhelmed by the situation," van Riemsdyk said after a 2-1 Game 6 victory Sunday night that forced this series to the maximum.

"You have to dial in to the present," van Riemsdyk added. "You don’t look ahead. You focus on what’s just ahead of you. The next shift. That’s it."

That Game 4 overtime loss Wednesday night was seen by many as the kind of heart-breaking moment that should have cracked Toronto’s will. The Leafs are a young team and you’d think that kind of moment, putting them down 3-1 in the series, would have crushed their spirit.


Instead, back-to-back season-saving victories have the Leafs very much with mojo on their side as they enter Monday night’s dramatic seventh game in Boston.

"We’ve always said they’re a good team," Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said in the Bruins' near-empty dressing room. "We never said it would be an easy series. Here we are now, it’s all about one game. Whatever happened in the first six games doesn’t matter. It’s all about us showing up tomorrow."

On the one hand, the Stanley Cup win just two years ago by this team tells you Boston is ready for a winner-take-all situation. Heck, the Bruins won three Game 7s that year.

But there are also troubling signs for this Boston squad. It has been well-documented how difficult it has been for the team to close out series the past few years. And just this season alone, the Bruins’ inconsistency from game to game and period to period, which ultimately cost them the Northeast Division title, is once again showing itself over the past two games.

"We’ve been up and down," Bergeron said. "Tomorrow, we’re going to make sure we bring our best game."

That’s what Toronto brought Sunday. The Leafs were full value for their win, getting third-period goals from captain Dion Phaneuf and star winger Phil Kessel while once again appearing to play as a team whose confidence is rising with each game of this series.

"We’ve grown as a group," Phaneuf said. "That was another stepping stone for us tonight."

Phaneuf has had two stud-like performances in the wake of his ill-advised pinch in overtime of Game 4 that led to the winning goal by David Krejci.

The Leafs captain faced the music that night in front of the cameras, singled himself out for making a terrible mistake. The next day media stories suggested Toronto needed to part ways with him this summer because he’s too unreliable as a top defenseman. Not that two games change everything, but Phaneuf responded with a strong game Friday night in Boston and an even greater effort Sunday night, tipping Nazem Kadri’s shot to open the scoring 1:48 into the third period and playing stellar defensive hockey.

"We know what Dion brings in this room," van Riemsdyk said. "He’s a huge part of our team. He’s a great leader, a great player. He plays a lot of minutes for us."

And how about Kessel? The series began with the tired, recycled stories of his trade from Boston to Toronto, how he can’t play well against his old team, etc.

His third goal of the series at 8:59 of the third period Sunday night, capping a night in which he was a constant offensive threat regardless of whether Zdeno Chara was on the ice or not, stood as the game winner.

Don’t think you’ll be hearing those mocking chants of "Thank you, Kessel" anymore in Boston.

Instead, the Air Canada Centre crowd Sunday night mockingly chanted "Thank you, Seguin," in the third period as the Boston forward’s struggles continued in this series with another pointless effort. Make it six games and no points for Seguin, who -- while he did not speak to the media after the game -- I can attest upon seeing him walk to the team bus in the bowels of the Air Canada Centre, had the look of a young man who is wearing the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Suddenly, that Kessel trade from former Leafs GM Brian Burke doesn’t look so one-sided, does it? Yes, the Bruins still got three pieces in the deal, drafting Seguin, Jared Knight and Dougie Hamilton with the picks they got for Kessel. And it’s still too early to know how Seguin will develop as a top-line scorer and Hamilton as a top-four defenseman.

But the point is, this series has completely quieted the conversation that the Kessel deal was a bust for Toronto.

Another player who continues to quiet his critics is James Reimer. The Leafs netminder was treated to "Reimer, Reimer" chants from the ACC crowd on a night in which he stood tall for a second game in a row, stopping 29 shots and looking poised and confident.

"The more games you can play in different situations, the more you grow, the more you develop," said Reimer, the game’s first star. "Definitely this has been great for my development and I just hope I can keep learning."

Reimer’s progress in this series very much mirrors the rest of his young team.

The Maple Leafs have grown by leaps and bounds since that Game 1 clunker.

"We’ve gotten stronger each playoff game, and you learn about what it takes -- you kind of get that baptism under fire," van Riemsdyk said. "Not a lot of guys get a chance to play in a Game 7 in their careers; it’s an honor and a privilege to play in games like that. …

"We’re going to have to play our best game of the playoffs tomorrow night."

So do the Bruins. Or else there will be hell to pay in Beantown.