“It’s a dream come true.”
As Peter Holland sat in his stall in the Toronto Maple Leafs locker room on Saturday night, a member of the team he grew up cheering for, he struggled to come up with any other way to describe it.
Fifteen hours earlier, the 22-year-old former first rounder from nearby Caledon, Ont., had been awoken by a call from the Anaheim Ducks brass, as they informed him he had been traded back home.
From there it was a whirlwind of arrangements and flights just to get him into the lineup, where he started against the Buffalo Sabres on the first line between NHL stars James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel in what became a 4-2 win.
Holland’s contributions weren’t extensive – he had two shots on goal, won seven of 11 faceoffs and played less than 12 minutes – but his presence may have been the biggest factor in the game simply because it allowed van Riemsdyk to move back to left wing.
In a rut while trying to fill in at centre the last four games, van Riemsdyk scored twice in the first period, tipping two Cody Franson point shots by Sabres netminder Jhonas Enroth for his eighth and ninth goals of the season.
Had he still been playing down the middle, they likely never would have happened.
“Well they were both off faceoffs, right?” van Riemsdyk said. “So probably not, no.”
“There was a conscious effort by our defencemen to get pucks through to that area,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said of the tip-ins that proved critical in the win. “And we were rewarded early.”
The Leafs then built on that lead in the second, when the very quiet Nikolai Kulemin finally broke through with his first goal of the season, making the game against the Eastern Conference’s worst team look like it was headed for a laugher at 3-0 at the halfway mark.
But, as they tend to do, Toronto let the Sabres right back in the game. They backed off, Buffalo started controlling the puck, pelting Leafs netminder James Reimer with 12 shots in the second and 17 in the third as part of a lopsided finish, territorially speaking.
By six minutes into the third, it was 3-2 and tensions began to rise – the refs tossed tough guys John Scott and Frazer McLaren for acting as they do – but a late Leafs power play finally ended the proceedings with a key insurance goal from Mason Raymond.
Despite the Sabres abysmal record, this was an important one to win. Toronto hadn’t taken a game in regulation since Oct. 30, a span in which they went 1-3-1 and scored only four goals, in part because of their incredibly desperate situation at centre.
With Dave Bolland and Tyler Bozak out with injury and Nazem Kadri sitting out the second of three games with a suspension, Leafs GM Dave Nonis went on the hunt for help and turned up Holland, who has had close to a point-a-game in the minors but played sparingly in the NHL.
Nonis finalized the deal – one of many Leafs-Ducks trades the past few seasons – late Friday night, when Holland was still on the ice putting together a three-point effort for the Norfolk Admirals.
Even in limited minutes, Holland did enough to earn kudos from his teammates and coach on Saturday, showing glimpses of why Toronto felt comfortable giving up prospect defenceman Jesse Blacker and two 2014 draft picks for him.
“I was impressed with him,” van Riemsdyk said. “I think he’s a really heady player – thinks the game well. A good, responsible player. It was a long day for him getting here and then playing on Hockey Night in Canada. I’m sure he was pumped about that, but I thought he played a good game.”
“What I saw is how patient he is with the puck,” added captain Dion Phaneuf, who was in the middle of the melee with Scott late in the game and took an ill-advised penalty that led to Buffalo’s second goal. “A few times he turned back and for young guys at the centre position, that shows that they’ve got lots of confidence in their ability to hold the puck.”
“I thought he did okay,” Carlyle said of Holland, who he knew only vaguely from their time together in the Ducks organization. “It’s hard when a young guy comes in. And it’s not like we hid him in the lineup.”
Holland may not end up playing a major role in the Leafs season, but there are a lot of things to like about the deal. He is still very young and has produced well at the minor league level, even showing enough to the Ducks that they had tried him at times with Teemu Selanne and Bobby Ryan on a fill-in basis in the past.
His arrival comes at a critical time, too, as Toronto needs to take advantage of a relatively soft November schedule before things get extremely tough next month, when many of the league’s heavy hitters roll through town and the distraction of HBO cameras everywhere enters the picture.
Having van Riemsdyk playing well and where he’s comfortable is going to be a must for the Leafs to fully pull out of their recent mini-slump, so from that perspective, even if Holland eventually ends up back in the AHL, the trade is an important one.
And it doesn’t hurt that he is anxious to impress playing for his hometown team.
“It’s obviously a change, but there’s some great centre men here that are just out of the lineup,” Holland said of his newfound role after struggling to crack the Ducks lineup. “So every day’s a tryout.
“My phone exploded today with family and friends calling. I honestly still haven’t figured out how to describe it yet. They were asking me, trying to sink it into my head that I was now a Toronto Maple Leaf, and I couldn’t even put into words what it was like. Maybe over the next couple days I’ll be able to give you a better answer.”
Injuries strike again
The Leafs got more bad news on the health front in this one as defenceman Mark Fraser went down with a lower body injury that’s believed to be related to a knee injury he suffered in the second game of the season.
Fraser missed 13 games with the injury originally and has been playing with a knee brace but left the Leafs bench after just four minutes of ice time on Saturday.
“It just didn’t feel right,” Carlyle said. “I hope [it’s not serious]. You take yourself out of the game, it’s serious enough. I don’t think it’s something that’s going to be weeks or whatever. I think it’s day to day.”
With Fraser out, Carlyle was forced to mix and match his defence pairs and all five remaining blueliners ended up playing 21 minutes or more, with Carl Gunnarsson leading the way with 26:14 in a season high.
Rookie Morgan Rielly was a healthy scratch again against the Sabres and will likely draw into the lineup for the Leafs next game against the New York Islanders on Tuesday.