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It Kicked Ass When: JVR taunted P.K. Subban and the Habs’ bench

“It kicked ass when:” is a new series that will be published whenever I feel like it. It’s pretty self-explanatory: going through Leafs moments that kicked ass.

It’s not hard to look back fondly on James van Riemsdyk’s career as a Toronto Maple Leaf, at least from an individual standpoint. Though his last game in the uniform was a little over a year ago now, he spent six seasons in the blue and white, totalling at least 27 goals each season in which he played at least 80 games.

Acquired in a one-for-one deal for journeyman defenceman Luke Schenn, JVR was a great member of the team while he was in Toronto, bridging the gap between two different and distinct eras.

There’s one goal, in particular, that I’ll always remember when I think of Middletown, NJ’s finest: A game-winner against Montreal on the eve of January 18th, 2014.

The Buildup

The Leafs in the early months of 2014 were quite an enigma. The year started off on a great note, with a New Years’ Day Winter Classic for the ages in a packed Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbour. JVR himself opened the scoring for Toronto that day, with a cute bat-in goal in the second period.

Tyler Bozak scored the eventual shootout winner, and it helped lift the spirits of a team that had won in regulation just twice since November 19th – a span of nearly a month and a half.

A hot start had kept the Leafs in the playoff picture, as they sat 5th in the Eastern Conference following that victory against Detroit.  But the Winter Classic win was, in fact, NOT the sign of things to come for the Leafs, as they subsequently lost their next four games to both New York teams, along with Carolina and Washington.

At that point, the Leafs had dropped five spots in the conference standings in just nine days, and the three points they sat behind Montreal quickly grew to eight.

Retrospectively, this was a largely flawed Leafs roster that got by for much of the year on the performances of a hot goaltending duo and Phil Kessel on any given day. (Sprinkle in 19 goals from Mason Raymond for good measure, too.)

But these Leafs had a knack for making you believe they could turn things around, and surely enough, after three straight wins in mid-January, they sat 7th in the East heading into the Saturday night matchup in Toronto against the rival Canadiens. The teams had split the season series one game apiece thus far, with the ensuing midseason matchup looking like it could be quite an important one.

And boy, were there ever headlines flying around about… a player having fun playing hockey.

On the Thursday before their game in Toronto, Montreal performed one of Leafs’ fans favourite pastimes: crowding whatever arena Ottawa calls home at any given time. It was there where Canadiens defenceman PK Subban won the game in overtime, and you, know, was pretty elated about it.

As you’re probably aware of, Subban has a history of getting people riled up by doing relatively innocuous things. Never one to shy away from being vocal, Subban was coming off a Norris Trophy-winning season the year prior.

At 0:31 of the following video, you see Subban grab and tug his jersey: a relatively mild way of saying “gotcha”.

But oh boy, were people mad! How disrespectful!

One of the mad people was goaltender Craig Anderson, who let in the goal.

“I didn’t see us, when we scored our overtime goal (in a 4-3 win on Jan. 4 in Montreal), we didn’t skate around throwing our jersey up in the air like that.”

You should’ve probably stopped it, Craig. Everyone who you’d expect to enjoy such a moment did, and just about everyone you’d otherwise expect to be upset about it was as well.

After that, the stage was set for a big matchup with the Leafs in the heat of a mid-season playoff push, with all eyes on Montreal’s marquee defenceman.

The Moment

Things started off like any other hockey game: Astronaut Chris Hadfield sang the anthem (yes, really) and  Cody Franson opened the scoring for Toronto on a rush in the game’s first five minutes. While Brendan Gallagher did tie things up at one in the first period,  PK Subban went to town chirping Toronto’s bench. Despite the fact that I could find a number of sources of this one, it’s all anecdotal, as I can’t seem to locate a video.

Fortunately, the Canadiens soon fell behind 3-1, and it took a late second-period surge from Brian Gionta to put the Habs back within one.

It was Subban, then, with the primary assist to set up David Desharnais and equalize the game at 3 with a little over ten minutes remaining in the third period.

But then: a broken play from Dion Phaneuf that squirts out onto Tyler Bozak’s stick, who calmly finds James van Riemsdyk waiting (where else?) right in front of the net.

van Riemsdyk throws the puck in the net and tosses up his arms up in jubilation, circles around the corner and pulls out the quick 1-2 tug of the jersey before embracing the closest person he can find: in this case, Dion Phaneuf.

Oh, and there was this:

It really was a heck of a game as a whole, if you’re looking for a quick rewatch.

Why it Kicked Ass

I mean, look at that!

A quick little jersey tug or two on the way back to passing the Habs’ bench. No one watching had any confusion at this real-life version of a subtweet.

There was still a little over five minutes left to play, but it instilled a bit of that classic Toronto “we’re better than you” confidence. Joffrey Lupul added the empty netter, and the Leafs had downed the Habs, won four straight, and were officially back.

Rivalry renewed, maybe?

The message JVR sent here demonstrated a “we can have fun too” undertone, but also mixed in a little bit of showing up the opposition. Just as Auston Matthews would one day steal Patrick Kane’s “I can’t hear you” celebration in Chicago four years later, JVR wanted to show everyone who the boss was that night.

The boss, in this case, was him.

The Buzz

JVR himself was pretty clear what the move was really all about.

From Chris Johnston’s game story, on the possibility of a Toronto-Montreal playoff series in the near future:

In the wake of Saturday’s game, players on both sides expressed hope that they might be part of the next series between the Original Six rivals.

“It was close last year,” said Gallagher. “It almost happened. You could see the last month fans in both cities were really looking forward to it. It would be pretty crazy, and I’m sure it’ll happen soon enough.”

(Had the Leafs finished just one point lower in the standings, they could have been playing Montreal in the lockout-shortened 2013 season. They, of course, played Boston instead, )

From Randy Carlyle:

“If you don’t get shivers and chills on Toronto-Montreal on a Saturday night on ‘Hockey Night in Canada,’ either in Montreal or Toronto, then I don’t think you understand the true meaning of the game here in Canada,” 

Things were good in Leafland, and everyone was over the moon over a big win.

The Aftermath

So, what came next? A whole lot of garbage, honestly.

From a rivalry standpoint: The Leafs proceeded to lose their next fourteen games against Montreal. That pretty much sums up why the moment was such an enduring one, as the Leafs simply wouldn’t have that kind of spark against the Habs again for the next three full years. Subban would never lose to the Leafs again as a member of the Canadiens, while James van Riemsdyk has not scored in a victory over the Canadiens since, as a Leaf or a Flyer.

From a 2013-14 season standpoint: the Leafs won their next two games on a road back-to-back in Phoenix and Denver, extending their winning streak to six. And then, uh, the Leafs won just 11 of their final 30 games, along with just two of their last 14. An eighteen-wheeler collapse, as it was dubbed. The shortened 2013 season playoff berth would be the last the Leafs would see for a while.

But despite everything that came after it, that one moment in time kicked ass, and gave just a little bit of belief before the Leafs would rip the fanbase’s heart out once again.

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