TORONTO — It had been 894 days. Almost two and a half years.
An agonizing amount of time that took Connor Carrick from Washington to Hershey, from the highest of highs to moments of unbelievable self-doubt, and finally here he was at the Air Canada Centre with a bouncing puck at his feet.
Carrick has reflected constantly on his first NHL goal in just his second career game — a breakaway, of all things, where the defenceman calmly deked out Calgary’s Karri Ramo back on Oct. 3, 2013 — and as time went along he couldn’t help but wonder when he might score another.
“It keeps you up at night,” said Carrick.
On Tuesday he could finally sleep easy.
His second NHL goal came at the end of a shift where the Toronto Maple Leafs had Tampa Bay hemmed in its own end for a prolonged stretch. Carrick batted the puck down at the top of the circle and fired quickly, barely squeezing it through the arm of Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Brooks Laich, a former teammate with the Washington Capitals, was the first to mob him. Carrick smiled wide and closed his eyes, releasing an unmistakable mixture of exuberance and relief in the process.
Asked later where all of that emotion came from, the 21-year-old gestured towards his stomach: “It was deep. It came from deep within.”
Carrick is one of many Maple Leafs players viewing this final string of games as something more than playing out the stretch. He sees an opportunity to show that he belongs and to secure a job.
The Leafs specifically asked to have him included in the Feb. 26 trade that saw Daniel Winnik sent to Washington — a move that took Carrick away from the organization that drafted him 137th overall in 2012, but also removed the ceiling placed closely above his head while playing for a top tier organization.
Carrick saw his first stretch of NHL games as a 19-year-old, scoring that early goal against the Calgary Flames, but not getting another until the following season.
“My first year pro, that was the only goal I had,” said Carrick. “I was an offensive D-man my whole life — a lot of points, a lot of goals — and it’s just a part of your game you take for granted until it’s not happening and then it becomes an issue.”
He has slowly started to return to his old self these past two seasons, gradually regaining the confidence with AHL Hershey while getting more comfortable with the pro game. What you won’t see him do very often now is cheat towards the offensive side of the ice. The only way he’ll ever get to show off his scoring prowess is by earning the trust of Leafs coach Mike Babcock, and the best way for him to do that is by keeping the puck out of his own net.
“There’s just certain plays that you don’t take the chance on because you know the rate of success going back that way is so high,” said Carrick. “In the American League, I’m that guy that guys don’t try to cheat on. We played the Marlies — you don’t cheat on (William) Nylander, you don’t cheat on (Kasperi) Kapanen — because they’re guys that will bury it.
“At this level, I mean, you guys all know their names, they’re really good hockey players on every line.”
On Tuesday, the names included Stamkos and Kucherov and Johnson and Palat and Hedman. They were all held off the scoresheet in Toronto’s 4-1 victory.
Babcock has been leaning heavily on defencemen Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Martin Marincin since Matt Hunwick was lost for the season last week. Few would ever have expected to see Marincin playing in excess of 25 minutes each game — and earning praise while doing so.
Clearly there is an opportunity here for Carrick to grab more minutes, and showing a strong two-way game will help in those efforts.
“He’s got a good shot, but we haven’t seen that in a game yet,” said Babcock. “So you’ve got to get comfortable and get enough that your skill set comes out in a game. If you look at Marty — Marty was here a long time and you didn’t even know Marty could skate good; and suddenly Marty skates real good and he’s a good penalty killer and a good defender.
“It’s called confidence.”
Over the final four weeks of the NHL season it’s something a number of young Leafs players have an opportunity to try and build. Babcock won’t be reading too much into their individual performances — he cited the large number of occasions where teams out of contention have surged to the finish, only to fall back the following year — but he will still be watching closely.
Against the Lightning he saw a pretty cool moment for his newest defenceman. The goal celebration said everything.
“It was full blackout at that point,” said Carrick. “I was really grateful for the guys in front that made that happen; a couple big bodies, you owe it all to them.
“Those are the moments why you play hockey. That’s why you work as hard as you do trying to just earn another one of those.”
At least the next one should come a little easier than this.