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'It has been a bit of a journey, but I am happy where I am,' says Holl. 'It is very exciting, but at the same time, this is not a place where there is time to rest on your laurels. It is never-ending.'Claus Andersen/Getty Images

It was not an easy six days for Justin Holl.

First, he tangled with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Next, it was Jack Eichel. Then, Artemi Panarin.

The Maple Leafs defenceman guarded all four.

“I think he has been excellent,” Sheldon Keefe, Toronto’s coach, said Thursday, while also complimenting Holl’s linemate. “The results speak to that. You can’t disregard Jake Muzzin’s presence, but certainly Holl has carried his own weight.”

Holl, 27, is in his first full campaign in the NHL. He bounced around the minors for much of the past decade. At one point, he played for the Indy Fuel. Nobody saw this coming.

In a season full of surprises, some of which have been not so great, Holl has been one of the Maple Leafs’ most pleasant.

His performance has been so conspicuous that he has started to draw those assignments against opponents’ best players. On Saturday night, that means he will likely see a lot of Detroit’s Dylan Larkin when the Red Wings visit Scotiabank Arena.

Michael Hutchinson will be in net for Toronto for the first time since Nov. 29 in place of Frederik Andersen. The latter has started nine consecutive games, including Friday night against the Rangers.

A week ago, after holding McDavid without a point, Holl was chosen the game’s second star.

“It was a big deal, but every night is a big deal when you play at this level,” he said.

He had never played against the Oilers superstar centre.

“Going in, I knew it would be a difficult night,” Holl said as he stood at his dressing stall on Thursday before the team travelled to New York. “You look at his goal and point totals and know he has great speed and play-making ability.”

On his second shift, McDavid momentarily broke free.

“He was pushing the pace but I thought I had him,” Holl said. “But even when you think you do, you don’t. He is slippery. Thankfully, nothing of consequence happened on the play.”

A few nights later, Holl smothered Eichel, the league’s hottest scorer, for two periods. Then Buffalo’s centre got a goal and an assist while leading a rally that fell just short.

“I covered him pretty much all night, and did a good job for 50 minutes,” Holl said. “Then he created a little space on me, and buried one.

“One little break is all he needs.”

The Maple Leafs entered Friday night with victories in four of the past five games, and were 8-4 since Keefe took over as head coach after Mike Babcock was fired. They need to continue to play well to become relevant in the playoff picture.

A slow start left them lagging in the Atlantic Division and in the bottom third of the Eastern Conference.

A handful of players have helped them turn things around – John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Andersen, especially – and so has Holl. After playing for the University of Minnesota for four years, he was drafted in the second round in 2010 by the Chicago Blackhawks. From there, he made stops in the East Coast League and the AHL, in the latter for three seasons for the Marlies under Keefe.

He was called up to the Maple Leafs for two games and scored in each in 2017-18, and was a healthy scratch in all but 11 games last season.

Now, he seems to be coming into his own, with a goal and nine assists in 33 games before Friday. At 6 foot 4 and 210 pounds, he has good size and has begun to exhibit a physical presence.

“It has been a bit of a journey, but I am happy where I am,” Holl said. “It is very exciting, but at the same time, this is not a place where there is time to rest on your laurels. It is never-ending.”