TORONTO – The punishment would seem to be worth the toll it takes on the body of 31-year-old Tim Gleason.
"I shouldn't even say anything," said Gleason with a touch of good humour after the latest Leafs win, "but I'll knock on some wood because the pucks are hitting me. I'd rather them hit me than go in the net or have (the goaltender) save 75 shots or whatever the case is."
"I guess it's being in the right spot or sometimes I think it's the worst spot to be."
Seemingly numb to the physical destruction his play seems to entail, Gleason blocked five more shots on Thursday night, also dolling out six hits in nearly 24 minutes – a team-high – en route to his team's eighth win in the past 10 games (8-1-1), a 6-3 topping of the Panthers at home.
A hard and even nasty presence on a defence that lacked such an element previously, Gleason has been a welcome addition in Toronto, finding a new lease on life with the Maple Leafs.
"Gleas has been a guy that's come in and been a heart and soul guy for us," said head coach Randy Carlyle after the win against Florida. "Blocking shots, physical, hard to play against – that's his game. And we don't expect him to do anything more."
Just as he'd hoped when waiving his no-trade clause to come to Toronto, Gleason has quickly re-energized his career with the Leafs. A member of the US Olympic team in 2010, he was averaging less than 16 minutes for the Hurricanes before being dealt for John-Michael Liles and a prospect earlier this month.
Grappling hold of minutes that previously went to the struggling duo of Paul Ranger and Mark Fraser, Gleason, averaging more than 19 minutes, has offered precisely the type of defensive force the Leafs, and more specifically Carlyle, have been searching for.
The physical toll he's absorbed in his brief tenure as a Leaf has, at times, been almost excruciating to watch.
Notable were the two bruising shots he blocked to protect a one-goal lead and eventual victory in Boston earlier this month. Earlier this week, in a win over Tampa, he endured one painful puck to the nether regions, another to the face, later sustaining a thunderous check into the end-boards by Teddy Purcell, one that briefly injured his left shoulder, but apparently did little to affect his status for this most recent game against the Panthers.
"He's an animal that guy," Nazem Kadri said of the Clawson, Michigan native. "He'll stand in front of anything. That's important for a team to have, those defencemen, those players who would do anything for the team and that's exactly what Timmy is."
1. Success at Home
Thursday marked the fifth consecutive win at home for the Leafs and 19th in 30 games this season (19-10-1). Toronto owns the fourth-highest winning percentage on home ice (.633) in the Eastern Conference, trailing only Pittsburgh, Boston and Tampa.
"I think that as a coach you think you should win every game at home," Carlyle said before the win over Florida. "I think if you look at teams that are winning championships and winning division titles and going deep into the playoffs that they have a little bit of an edge when the opposition comes in. They know that this is going to be a tough place to play. I think we're still working towards that."
Large in the team's success at home is the offence they've been able to provide.
The Leafs have scored three goals per game at the ACC, half-a-goal per game more than they've managed on the road. A big part of that attack is the league's no. 1 ranked home power-play (28.4%), which clicked for a pair against the Panthers, including the 22nd this year for James van Riemsdyk – a career-high – and the 16th of the season for Joffrey Lupul.
"I played in the west for a lot of years and I know there were some rinks that you went into that were tough and definitely tough to go into," said Mason Raymond, who has 10 of his 14 goals and 23 of his 32 points this season in Toronto. "I think any team is going to tell you they want to make their home rink a tough one to come into and play hard in."
2. En Fuego – Still
Tallying three assists in a night for the first time this season, Nazem Kadri had what Carlyle described as "probably the best game that he's played in a long time at both ends of the rink". Kadri dug pucks free in the Panthers zone on goals from Cody Franson and Nik Kulemin before dishing to Lupul for a late power-play blast.
"Offensively, Nazzie was a difference-maker tonight," said Carlyle.
The 23-year-old has amassed 12 points in the past eight games and is on pace for 57 points this season. He spent seven of those eight games alongside Kulemin and Lupul, the former joining the pair against Montreal on Jan. 19. With Kulemin – a left shot – playing the right wing and Lupul – a right shot – playing the left wing, the line has gradually come alive.
"It seems like Kulie is a better right winger, Lupul is a better left winger, which is kind of mind-boggling at times – one's a right shot and one's a left shot – but that's where they fit," said Carlyle.
3. Bolland Edging Closer
Not looking anything like a player who has endured three months of rehab, Dave Bolland continues to push toward a return for the Leafs. Bolland missed his 41st game of the season on Thursday night, but could make it back before the Olympic break – Toronto plays its final game on Feb. 8.
"I would think that there's a 50-50 chance," said Carlyle of Bolland's prospects on Thursday morning. "He looks like he's moving quite freely out there and for the better part of the skates he doesn't seem to be affected by it. But obviously there's things going on that are inside that are taking a little bit more time."
"You've got to learn how to work that tendon again and work with it," the 27-year-old said recently.
Out since Nov. 2, Bolland still has yet to participate in a full practice with the team – an important first step – joining the group at various points for the first time this week.
"It's a dramatic injury," Carlyle said. "It's a difficult place to heal. It takes time. And we're asking a guy to do something and his body is telling him another and that's when the push and shove becomes where he can take it."
4. Steve Spott
Despite losing a slew of veteran players – Mike Zigomanis, Ryan Hamilton, Greg Scott, Will Acton among them – and their head coach Dallas Eakins to the NHL, the Toronto Marlies have remained an AHL force, winning seven of their past 10 games and leading their division once more this season.
The man charged with steering a young, mostly inexperienced and overachieving ship is first-year head coach Steve Spott, formerly of the Kitchener Rangers.
"I think Steve's really good at getting the most out of his players," Troy Bodie told the Leaf Report, the 29-year-old spending 17 games with the Marlies this season. "He's really patient with them. He knows it's a young group and he has the patience to deal with them properly. They have to learn the pro game so there's a lot of teaching involved. I think he's just good at handling them."
The Marlies continue to be led in scoring by defenceman T.J. Brennan and boast only two forwards with 10 goals – Spencer Abbott and the now NHL-bound Carter Ashton. Busting with youth, their roster includes 20-year-olds Josh Leivo, Stuart Percy, and Tyler Biggs along with 21-year-olds Greg McKegg, Sam Carrick, Brad Ross, David Broll, and Petter Granberg.
And yet they stand atop the North division with 25 wins in 42 games.
5. Holland's Quest for Consistency
From a pure production standpoint Peter Holland's second tour of duty with the Leafs hasn't gone quite as well as the first go around. Dealt to Toronto in mid-November, Holland had a string of eight points in one 10-game span, but has just one point in nine games since being recalled from the Marlies earlier this month.
Maintaining consistency at the game's highest level is a challenge most young players, the Caledon native included, have to overcome.
"In the American League you can kind of have nights off and still end up with a goal or two assists or whatever, you can still end up on the point-sheet," Holland told the Leaf Report earlier this week. "But I think the challenge with this level is doing things that may not show up on the score-sheet but that are effective."
Holland spoke of the subtler elements of the game, winning one-on-one battles in the defensive zone, grasping the team's defensive system, wearing down the opposition defence with extended offensive zone time and winning faceoffs.
"Just all little things that go into having the team overall feel better out there on the ice," he said.
With Trevor Smith due back shortly and Bolland pushing the pace en route to recovery (see above), Holland's spot in the lineup would seem to be in impending jeopardy. Still quite young in his NHL career – 60 games – further seasoning with Spott and the Marlies would not be a bad thing.
22 – Goals for James van Riemsdyk this season, a career-high.
20 – Points for Phil Kessel in January, the highest total for any one month in his NHL career.
7 – Times in the past eight games that Nazem Kadri has recorded at least a point.
4 – Goals in the past 28 games for Mason Raymond, who scored his 14th this season against the Panthers.
12 – Points for Kadri in the past eight games.
28.4% – Power-play success rate for the Leafs at home this season, tops in the NHL.
5 – Blocked shots for Tim Gleason against the Panthers.
8-1-1 – Leafs record in the past 10 games.
8-8 – Toronto penalty kill in the past two games.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 22.8% (3rd)
Season: 77.7% (28th)
Quote of the Night
"A few weeks ago it felt like the sky was falling in Toronto. We understood that it was nothing to panic about. We just rallied around each other."
-Nazem Kadri, on the Leafs winning eight of the past 10 games.
The Leafs host the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night.