TORONTO – Peter Holland was riding the GO train just a couple days after he was traded to play for his hometown Maple Leafs when he was recognized by a fan. It was the kind of surreal moment that made life playing at home all the more real.
"That never would've happened in Anaheim, California," Holland, a native of Caledon, told the Leaf Report with a chuckle. "That was pretty cool."
No longer on the west coast with the Ducks, the 22-year-old enjoyed the biggest night of his NHL career in front of the hometown crowd on the Saturday night stage. With his parents and childhood skills coach (Joey Simon from Powerhouse Hockey) in the stands, Holland scored twice and added a helper as Toronto stunned the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks 7-3 at the ACC.
It was the club's first win in regulation since Nov. 19 and third in the past 20 games.
Moved up in the lineup onto a unit with Joffrey Lupul and Mason Raymond – David Clarkson was serving the first of a two-game suspension – Holland scored his fourth this season and first of the game on an early power-play, notching his second on a tic-tac-toe feed from Lupul and Raymond. He would add an assist on the second of two goals from Lupul.
"They've given me a good opportunity here and I think that as long as I'm playing my game I think I have the ability to play at this level," said Holland, acquired from Anaheim in mid-November. "Obviously playing with guys like Lupul and Raymond is going to help me stick around too."
A first round pick of the Ducks in 2009, Holland nearly doubled his season output with the standout performance against Chicago, now at five goals and seven points in 16 games this season. With injuries plaguing the Leafs at centre ice – Dave Bolland and Tyler Bozak are both sidelined – opportunity is there for someone like Holland to grab hold of.
To this point, he had offered only brief glimpses of the skill his pedigree would infer. But with more opportunity – a career-high of over 19 minutes – he was able to show it off in a big way against the Blackhawks.
"I'm just kind of approaching it like it's a job and it is a job," Holland said.
As to the chance to play at home, after bouncing between outposts in Syracuse, Norfolk and Anaheim, Holland said it's been more comfort than distraction.
"If anything I think it almost relieves pressure," he said. "You've got more of a support network around you. It's a thrill to play in front of them every night. Going back to minor hockey when your parents came to every game, driving you there and stuff, and now they can come to every home game here. It's a good feeling."
1. Response from St. Louis
Only two days before shocking the Blackhawks at home, the Leafs were embarrassed on the road by the Blues. It was their eighth loss in 10 games and among the worst efforts of the year.
"Off our performance in St. Louis we could not have anything close to that again," said Randy Carlyle following the win against Chicago, the league's top team again this season. "They weren't very proud of our performance. They knew that we didn't do a lot of things that we set out to do.
"I thought that our hockey club responded the way they needed to respond," he continued. "They took responsibility for our actions and that's a good sign. But the most encouraging thing for us tonight was our work ethic and we stuck to our system and played it."
Trekking through their most arduous portion of the schedule – which has included the Sharks, Bruins, Kings, Blues, and Blackhawks – the Leafs now face another top team in Pittsburgh on Monday.
"It doesn't get any easier," said Lupul, who had four points on Saturday, "but certainly winning a game against the top team in the league gives you a little bit of confidence so hopefully we can run with it."
2. Cycle Offence
Though they generated the bulk of their offence off the rush, the Leafs did manage to sustain bursts of the cycle game Carlyle has been pleading for. The fourth goal of the evening, and fourth this season from Nik Kulemin, found its way into the back of the net off such an attack.
"We've been striving for that," said Carlyle. "And in the games that we are effective it seems that we have more of that in the hockey game. That's really what we're trying to do is we're trying to eliminate a one-dimensional rush team."
That rush game was certainly effective, notably the line of Holland, Lupul and Raymond.
"When you start to wear teams down, if you play more in their zone, your rush game becomes more effective," Carlyle said. "The players will tell you, they never get tired playing in that zone. They're not receiving the game. When you're attacking and you're creating more offensive zone time it's a better feeling."
The Leafs also benefited on this night from scoring beyond their top unit.
Phil Kessel would score the seventh and final Toronto goal, his 17th this season, but the remainder of the offence came from the second and third lines. Pegged to slow down the Blackhawks imposing top trio of Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa, the third line of Kulemin, Jerry D'Amigo, and Jay McClement scored twice while holding their opponents off the scoresheet.
"They did a heck of a job for us," said Carlyle.
3. Playing at Home
In addition to the unlikely meet and greet with the fan on the GO Train, Holland said the second surreal moment of playing at home came when he put on the Leafs jersey for the first time, one he wore as a fan growing up.
"I kind of let that sink in for a couple seconds there because that was a dream come true for sure," he said.
Holland often made it down to Leafs games as a kid, mostly at the old Maple Leaf Gardens. "Some of my fondest memories were actually at the Garden," said Holland. "I was in there bleeding blue and white with the fans growing up."
4. Defensive Confusion
A frequent frustration for Carlyle in recent weeks has been the rising tide of goals scored against from the critical areas or the zone surrounding the goal.
"It's taking care of the front of your net before anywhere else," John-Michael Liles said of such improvement, prior to Saturday's game. "Ultimately, most teams are trying to draw you out of those critical areas so they can get the puck into those critical areas. It's no different than any other sport."
Liles compared the tactic to soccer or basketball (where quality outside shooters draw defenders from the basket), noting the desire of an offence to space the defence out and away from the respective goal. "It's that movement (of) trying to confuse," he said.
Defensive improvement stands high atop the Leafs priorities. During their ongoing struggle, they've allowed three goals or more in 13 of 20 games, losing all but two of those games (including on Saturday).
"We're trying to implement a defensive zone coverage that we can hang our hat on," said Carlyle. "Once you play better defensively then you start to become more of a team that (attacks) versus receiving the game. That's really what has happened with our hockey club, I would say specifically in the last 15 games, is we've been receiving more than we've been attacking."
For the first time all season neither Paul Ranger nor Mark Fraser was in the lineup for the Leafs. A new-look third pairing of some speed and some skill saw John-Michael Liles paired with Morgan Rielly. The adjustment appeared an early success.
"I thought they did a good job from a standpoint of we played our system and we moved the puck pretty much worrisome-free other than about five or six minutes in the second period," said Carlyle of the group.
The Toronto defence has been a source of instability all season.
Only one pairing has remained a constant from start to present: Carl Gunnarsson and Dion Phaneuf (save for Phaneuf's recent two-game suspension). Asked prior to Saturday's game if he would consider splitting the two as he did last season – and thus balancing the group –Carlyle said no.
"It's been an experiment that we felt it failed," said Carlyle. "We weren't happy with that. I would say at this point we think that they're our go-to pair. Right now, I don't think that's a possibility for us … But coaches change their minds."
Searching for balance, Carlyle split Gunnarsson and Phaneuf for the first 28 games last season with Phaneuf playing alongside Korbinian Holzer and current Blackhawk Michael Kostka. By mid-March though he abandoned the plan and reconnected the team's usual top pairing.
Bonus Point – Bolland Update
A bit of positive news amid a difficult stretch for the Leafs saw Dave Bolland off crutches this week and walking around the Air Canada Centre on Saturday morning.
"The update is that he's progressing along at the expected rate," said Carlyle without offering any concrete timeline. "There's no great difference in where he's at versus where we thought he was going to be. He's not ahead of schedule, he's right on schedule right now."
7 - Goals for the Leafs against Chicago, a season-high.
3 - Points from Peter Holland, a career-high.
4 – Assists for Mason Raymond against Chicago, a career-high. Raymond also surpassed the 22 points he had in 46 games last season. He now has 24 points in 34 games.
19:22 – Ice-time for Holland, also a career-high.
5 – Points for Jake Gardiner in December. He had six points combined in October and November.
1 - Career NHL goal for Jerry D'Amigo. D'Amigo also added an assist against the Blackhawks.
2 - Goals from the Leafs third line, who also held Chicago's top unit scoreless.
9 – Games without a goal for Joffrey Lupul prior to a two-goal outing on Saturday. Lupul hadn't scored since Nov. 9 in Boston.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 24.3% (3rd)
Season: 76.7% (27th)
Quote of the Night
"You guys can't see it, but I'm just going crazy inside right now."
-Jerry D'Amigo, moments after scoring his first career NHL goal.
The Leafs travel to Pittsburgh for a Monday date with the Penguins.