TORONTO – Vince Dunn didn’t find out until an hour (real time) before puck drop that he would even be dressing to play in the building where he grew up admiring the Toronto Maple Leafs and imagining of a moment like this.
About an hour (game time) after Tuesday’s puck drop, the 21-year-old Mississauga, Ont., native found himself in the eye of a great, swirling group hockey-hug hurricane, his St. Louis Blues mates smothering the local boy in joy as he snapped the come-from-behind overtime winner and stunned his boyhood team 2-1.
“It’s a pretty crazy feeling there. You dream about playing in this arena when you’re a little kid,” said Dunn, unable to stifle his post-game perma-grin. “My mom and my dad were in stands, and my grandparents were watching on TV. All the credit to them.”
When top-four mainstay Jay Bouwmeester failed to show for morning skate, Blues coach Mike Yeo appeared unconcerned, assuring the veteran would likely play.
Turns out, Bouwmeester became a father (again) Monday — family planning, bye-week style — and travel delays prevented him from arriving in Toronto until about 60 minutes before Tuesday’s puck drop.
After some debate, the Blues coaching staff went with the warmed-up, eager rookie with the county-music name.
Dunn grew up rooting for Carl Gunnarsson and Alexander Steen at the ACC when they were Leafs. Now teammates with them, Dunn felt a rush of anxiety before skating in this one.
“Let’s just say coach’s instinct told me to put him in the game,” said Yeo, tongue planted firmly in cheek.
“It was a tough situation for him. We didn’t know he was going to play the game, and he didn’t know he was going to play the game. It’s tough for him to prepare.
“This is a meaningful game for him. He wanted to play in this game. Lots of family and friends, so he did a good job of being ready to go.”
You think? Dunn blasted a game-high seven shots on goal and was the contest’s only plus-2. Not a bad outing for your 41st career NHL appearance.
“He was fantastic,” beamed Steen, who tied the game with just 57 seconds left in regulation. “He was excited to play tonight. When he got that chance [in overtime], our whole bench got up and was quite electric. Then when he scored, there was a big cheer. It’s nice. It’ll be a memory for him, for sure.”
A 2015 second-rounder who cracked the Blues’ deep defence roster this past October after one impressive season with the AHL Chicago Wolves, Dunn’s 3-on-3 memory begins with a faceoff in the Blues’ own zone. Paul Stastny wins the draw, and Dunn finds himself in a battle for “a messy puck” along the wall with Leafs winger Mitch Marner.
Marner loses the puck battle and flicks his head back in a presumed attempt to draw a penalty and drags his feet on the back-check.
“I was just trying to take away a reverse to [Vladimir] Tarasenko and kind of slowed up – kind of read it wrong,” Marner said. “They got an odd-man rush and it obviously didn’t go in our favour.”
Dunn said he was just trying to skate the puck up-ice when suddenly he realized he was carrying a two-on-one. “I tried to shoot for a rebound more than anything,” the hero said, “but it found its way to the net.”
Mike Babcock was less than impressed.
“In OT, you can’t be on the wrong side of the puck,” the Leafs coach said. “You just can’t. What you learn from good teams is you don’t cheat, you just keep doing things good and you stay patient and take your opportunities. When you cheat for offence, you lose.”
Funny thing is, even though Dunn has been on the Blues’ roster since Game 1, the poor kid wasn’t even allowed to cheat during the bye week.
While the rest of the Blues vacationed, Dunn returned to the Wolves, per Yeo’s request. The rookie had been sick, and his coach wanted to keep his legs active, knowing he might be a healthy scratch in the bigs.
Dunn put up two points in two AHL games and admits that the extra work was for the best. As was the timing of the world’s newest Bouwmeester.
“Congrats to him. That’s pretty special, having his second. So we’re all happy for him,” said Dunn, still riding the OT love.
“I guess things happen for a reason. I’m very fortunate to play this game.”