When a little kid dreams of their first professional hockey game, they usually imagine storming down the boards with the puck on their blade and beating the goalie high glove side with a beautiful slap shot to win the game in overtime.
Luckily for James van Riemsdyk, our childhood dreams are usually quite farfetched, unless of course his dreams as a kid in Middletown, New Jersey consisted of taking one shot on goal playing third line minutes in the AHL.
Riemer made his highly anticipated professional debut Wednesday night in a 6-3 Phantoms win over the Albany River Rats. It was a big win at a crucial point of the season for the Phantoms, who are fighting for the final East Division playoff spot.
But the story on this night wasn't David Laliberte's hat trick, which propelled the Phantoms from a 3-1 deficit to the gigantic win. It wasn't about this game being the third-to-last game in the history of the magnificent Spectrum, either.
Nope, the reason I saw Paul Holmgren walking to his car after the game instead of being parked in front of a television watching his NHL team play, or, better yet, perched high atop Air Canada Centre in downtown Toronto watching his team play, was all because of one player. He was the first round pick of the Flyers in 2007, the second overall pick in the draft, and the only good thing to come out of the lost 2005-2006 Flyers season. For a franchise and a fanbase that simply doesn't accept losing, this kid is kind of a big deal.
It's been a whirlwind couple of days for the now-former University of New Hampshire Wildcat. Last Tuesday, he played in his first NCAA tournament game, a thrilling 6-5 OT win over North Dakota. That ultimate high was followed by a terrible low on Saturday when his Wildcats were bounced from the tournament on a tiebreaking goal by Boston University with just 14.4 seconds remaining in Saturday's Northeast Regional Final. BU was headed to the Frozen Four, and UNH was headed home. JVR, on the other hand, decided to head to Philly.
"I was so excited when I was packing that I actually packed two different pairs of shoes, so I actually had to wear two right shoes to the game today," van Riemsdyk told the media following his pro debut. "That was kind of embarrassing."
That journey began this evening, and while it wasn't picture perfect, Riemer had a solid first outing. Playing with Jon Kalinski and Rob Sirianni for most of the night on what was the Phantoms third line, van Riemsdyk didn't seem out of place in what is obviously a much faster game than he is used to.
It certainly took him a few shifts to get comfortable. The first time he touched the puck, he made an errant cross ice pass that didn't really seem to head to anybody in particular. Surely, just some first game jitters. After his first two or three shifts, though, he eased in.
He made a few small but effective body checks along the boards. He wasn't afraid to go into the corner and did so on several occasions with Albany players that certainly are bigger than him. He's a relatively decent-sized guy himself, listed at 6'3", 200-pounds, but he could use a couple more pounds on his slightly light frame.
Head coach John Paddock was confident enough to give van Riemsdyk some power play time, throwing the rookie into the fire at a crucial time in the second period when the Phantoms were only up a goal. He played the point, where he took his one shot of the evening, a slapper that was gobbled up by Albany goaltender Daniel Manzato.
The most impressive part of his game tonight was his speed and skating ability. He's a very skilled skater and he certainly didn't miss a step at all, and he is very quick at unleashing his speed. His vision is also quite good, and especially in the third period as he began to develop chemistry with his linemates, he made some very nice looking passes.
His head was on a swivel the entire game. There were a couple occasions where a few Albany tough guys, Benn Olson and Brad Hereuf, tried to catch him off guard and give him a nice warm AHL welcome. JVR was very aware and able to dodge the checking attempt. That was especially nice to see, especially since he's coming from a college game where, while hitting is allowed, it certainly doesn't get as physical as the pro ranks.
All in all, it was a solid professional debut from the highly touted former-Ranger fan from Central New Jersey. I plan on attending the rest of the Phantoms home schedule, which has only two games remaining on it, so I'm sure there will be more to say about the guy. Get out to the Spectrum if you can -- it's not going to be there forever.
Here are some pictures more pictures of JVR's debut. I apologize for the crappy quality -- I didn't bring my good camera. Also, I took an isolation video of one of Riemer's shifts in the third period. He doesn't do all that much, but if you've never seen him play before, it can give you some idea of what he looks like out there. There's also a decent hit at the end, so uh, there's that.