TORONTO -- Ron Rolston's debut as coach of the Buffalo Sabres was spoiled by one of his former pupils.
James van Riemsdyk, who played under Rolston for two years with the United States National Team Development Program, scored twice on Thursday as the Maple Leafs beat the Sabres 3-1 in Rolston's first game since replacing Lindy Ruff, who was in his 16th season behind the Buffalo bench when he was fired on Wednesday.
"He's a big reason for the success I've been able to have as a hockey player," van Riemsdyk said of Rolston. "He really kind of instilled that confidence and trust that he had in me as a player and he put me out there in pretty much every situation in every game and allowed me to grow.
"There was obviously some growing pains my first year but the second year I was able to blossom under his tutelage and I feel thankful for everything he taught me."
Van Riemsdyk, an offseason acquisition by former general manager Brian Burke, leads the Maple Leafs with 11 goals.
"I think I'm getting some good bounces right now and playing in some good situations with a lot of great players," van Riemsdyk said.
Ben Scrivens rebounded from being pulled in his last start, stopping 31 shots for and improving to a 5-4-0 record this season.
The Sabres got off to a good start under their new coach when Tyler Ennis scored his sixth of the season at 13:20 of the opening period. Ennis took a pass from Drew Stafford at the blue line and zipped a wrist shot to the top corner past Scrivens. The scoring play was a result of a good breakout by the Sabres.
Earlier in the day, Rolston said he noticed the team he inherited from Ruff took "a lot of shortcuts." The Sabres tried to dispel that notion early on as they buzzed around Scrivens until they eventually opened the scoring.
Their effort was not lost on Rolston.
"I think we got better in some areas, I really did," Rolston said. We did a little bit of work this morning before the pregame skate -- as much as much as we could without overwhelming them with all kinds of different things. I saw some positive things."
The Sabres lead did not last as the Leafs scored twice in the second period to take control. Toronto coach Randy Carlyle attributed his team's success to establishing the forecheck in the final two periods.
"Once we can get on that forecheck and continue to throw that puck in and come at a team in waves, we can be an effective in grinding teams down," Carlyle said.
Dion Phaneuf tied the game 1:15 into the period by blasting a power-play shot past Ryan Miller. The goal came with three seconds left in Alexander Sulzer's holding penalty. Phil Kessel and Cody Franson assisted on the 100th goal of Phaneuf's NHL career.
The Sabres thought they went ahead when Steve Ott backhanded the puck into the Maple Leafs goal at 7:08. However, it was ruled that Kevin Porter had interfered with Scrivens and the goal was waived off. Porter, who was called up from the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League earlier in the day, was given a two-minute minor penalty for bumping Scrivens.
From his vantage point, Miller felt the scoring play should have counted.
"It was a little surprising on that call, the goalie is well out of his crease and he slides in to the play," Miller said. "I don't know too many guys getting that call, I wouldn't even hope for that call. If I am that far out and leaning in to a play, I expect to have to recover."
While the Maple Leafs did not capitalize on the power play, they did get the go-ahead goal at 18:04. Kessel pounced on a turnover in the neutral zone, raced into the Sabres' zone and spotted Van Riemsdyk at the edge of the crease for an easy tap-in.
"[Phil] showed everything he has. He made a great play at the line to get the puck out and we had the 2-on-1. I think he froze the goalie because I had a lot of net to shoot at," Van Riemsdyk said.
The 23-year-old is enjoying life on the first line and is making the most of increased playing time, something he desired when he played in Philadelphia. He added an insurance goal during a 5-on-3 power play with 5:32 left in regulation.
Van Riemsdyk is presenting his coach with a good problem now that top-line forward Joffrey Lupul is skating again. Lupul, who broke his forearm last month, could return to the lineup in the next four weeks.
"If he is going to stay around the net and go to those tough areas, he is going to play with our top six grouping of forwards," Carlyle said, though he stopped short of saying that van Riemsdyk will stay on the top line for the rest of the season.
Miller made a spectacular save just over a minute into the opening period, sprawling along the ice to deny Leo Komarov's sweeping shot that seemed to be destined for the back of the net. He made the best of his 33 saves in the third period, robbing Van Riemsdyk with his glove when the Sabres were down two men. He also made a nice save on Kessel, who charged in on goal after being a passout from Tyler Bozak.
For a dejected Miller, the Sabres (6-11-1) are a team desperately trying to find an identity.
"I think we are caught in between, we have to either gun it a little bit and score some more or lock it down, you can't be an in between team in the NHL," he said.
NHL scoring leader Thomas Vanek had several glorious chances early on but could not convert. On the first opportunity, Vanek was set up by Cody Hodgson in the slot but shot high. Moments later, Scrivens denied Vanek's low, hard drive with a left pad save and then stoned him again on the rebound.
"I thought we started the game really well, especially our line" Vanek said. "[We] had two or three very good opportunities and couldn't put any away. If we put those away, I think we can lead the game 2-0 after the first 10 minutes."
Instead the Sabres lost their third in a row and are now 4-11-1 since opening the season with back-to-back wins.
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