Healthy van Riemsdyk a standout in Game 1

Photo Courtesy of Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

By Charlie O’Connor (@THG_Charlie)

James van Riemsdyk had the season from hell. Luckily for him, there is a second season on the NHL’s calendar, as well.

And the soon-to-be 23 year old forward is making the most of it.

Expected by many league observers to have a breakout season after his standout performance in the 2011 postseason, van Riemsdyk had a 2011-12 season that can be best described as terribly frustrating. After a strong start to the year (16 points in 20 games in October and November), the injury bug struck van Riemsdyk down. He missed four games with an abdominal muscle tear in late November, and following his return, faced rumors that he was suffering from a hip injury that could necessitate surgery at season’s end.

Possibly affected by these injuries, van Riemsdyk’s production sagged in December and early January. In addition to his struggles on the ice, he was a popular name in trade rumors, often linked to Toronto’s Luke Schenn. A mid-January concussion temporarily halted trade talk, but van Riemsdyk was still considered to be a possible chip at the February 27th trade deadline.

“That is a part of professional sports,” van Riemsdyk said following today’s game. “Your job is never safe. I don’t look much into it, it just happens. You have to roll with it and go from there.”

Van Riemsdyk survived the deadline, remaining a member of the Philadelphia Flyers. Still, he had little time to celebrate, as only three days later he took a shot off his foot during a game against the New York Islanders. The result was a broken foot and an early conclusion to the 22 year-old’s regular season.

Making his return in Game 5 of Philadelphia’s first round series against Pittsburgh, van Riemsdyk received limited ice time, as Peter Laviolette eased him back into the lineup. But after a week-long break between the conclusion of the Pittsburgh series and the start of the Flyers’ conference semifinal series against the New Jersey Devils, Laviolette decided that van Riemsdyk was ready for an increased role in the offense.

“The week really provided an opportunity to push him with his conditioning, and his pace, and his on ice play just in practice,” Laviolette noted.

Daniel Briere’s line had struggled at even strength at times during the Pittsburgh series, getting outworked and outplayed by Jordan Staal in particular. Laviolette replaced Wayne Simmonds with Jakub Voracek on the line for Game 6, to successful results. For Game 1 of the semifinals, Laviolette tweaked the line yet again, replacing Brayden Schenn with van Riemsdyk, ensuring that the third-year player would receive substantial even strength ice time.

The result was total territorial dominance by the new line. Van Riemsdyk himself finished with a +3 traditional plus/minus, and was a whopping +18 in terms of shots fired plus/minus, trailing only linemate Briere, who finished the game at +22.

Van Riemsdyk’s second period goal gave the Flyers their first lead of the game, as he gobbled up a rebound after a Martin Brodeur turnover and wristed the puck into a wide open net. And while he did not receive a point on Daniel Briere’s overtime winner, his screen of Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur on the play was instrumental in giving the Flyers a 1-0 series lead.

“It was nice to get some more opportunity there today,” van Riemsdyk said. “I was able to take advantage of some of the chances that I got.”

Briere saw similarities between the van Riemsdyk in Game 1 and the unstoppable van Riemsdyk from the 2011 postseason.

“Definitely, the way he skated, the way he was so strong,” Briere remarked.  “That was great to see.”

“The way he played last year in the playoffs, if he keeps playing the same way that’s another huge asset upfront for us.  What a game he had.”

Claude Giroux concurred with Briere’s assessment.

“He looks like the James from last year in the playoffs,” Giroux said. “He is so strong and so fast; he has everything a player would want. He was unbelievable again.”

Laviolette took note of van Riemsdyk’s frustrating season in his post-game press conference.

“It’s been hard for James because he’s been strapped for injuries for three months.  He came off one [injury], he came back and played in maybe a half a dozen games, and then ended up with the foot injury and missed more time. So it’s difficult when you come out for an extended period of time.”

But for van Riemsdyk, the seemingly-endless injuries were just another obstacle to overcome.

“Those injuries are a part of the game,” he said. “I am lucky that I have a good support system that only lets me worry about what I have to do out there on the ice and they block me out from the rest. I am definitely thankful for that and I just go out there and play hockey.”

Now finally healthy, van Riemsdyk will have the rest of the 2012 postseason to make up for lost time and take up a key role as an offensive weapon for the Philadelphia Flyers.

If he continues to play as this level, his second season could prove to be quite lengthy.

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