How clash with McDavid boosted Leafs’ trust in Muzzin-Holl shutdown pair

Sportsnet’s Shawn McKenzie recaps a roller coaster season for the Toronto Maple Leafs and explains how their stars will need to lead the team for a deep playoff run.

TORONTO – To understand your own potential, it never hurts to measure yourself against greatness.

The very best of Justin Holl was broadcast loud on a Saturday night in mid-December when he helped silence Connor McDavid in prime time.

The busiest three periods of Holl’s late-blooming NHL life concluded with a Hockey Night in Canada towel draped over his shoulders, a 4-1 Toronto Maple Leafs win in the books and 2018-19’s most healthy-scratched player aw-shucks-ing his way through a conversation about limiting hockey’s most dangerous forward to one shot on net.

Holl skated 26 minutes and 10 seconds in that victory. His Stanley Cup-winning shutdown partner, Jake Muzzin, logged a season-high 27:01.

McDavid, the Art Ross leader at the time, finished dash-2, pointless in 22:22 on home ice.

Discussing Tuesday why he trusts Holl on his playoff shutdown pair, coach Sheldon Keefe referenced the “giant leap” the 28-year-old took on Dec. 14.

“Justin Holl took a real large step for me when we were out in Edmonton and he had to play a lot against McDavid. That was a big a real big test and challenge,” Keefe said, “but he did very well with that. I think his confidence really took off from that point.”

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Since that win, Keefe noticed a consistency to Holl’s performance. Like any defenceman pulling on a blue-and-white sweater over the past half-century, Holl had some tough shifts against top lines. (When the Oilers came to Toronto on Jan. 6, McDavid put up four points and Holl took three minor penalties). But the difference between Holl’s worst efforts and his best wasn’t massive.

In his first tour as an NHL regular, Holl posted a plus-13 rating — second to only Auston Matthews among Leafs with at least 60 games played — and earned a tidy three-year, $6-million contract extension through 2022-23 by running up against the elite. (Fun fact: Muzzin and Holl now rank one-two among Leafs defencemen in contract security.)

“You can just see his confidence and feel for the game continue to grow,” John Tavares said. “He doesn’t get talked about much, but I think just as physicality, his mobility and then even the plays he’s making offensively, he’s just become such an all-around solid guy for us on the back end.”

“He was just finding himself. Given his age and how long he’s been around and all those things, you lose sight of the fact that he’s still gaining experience,” Keefe added. “And as that sample grew, you just learn to trust him that much more.”

The underlying numbers, and certainly a shared Calder Cup championship in 2018, support the coach’s trust.

Despite being fed a steady diet of top-six forwards, the Muzzin-Holl pairing has produced the most positive scoring-chance and possession metrics of any Leafs blue line duo with a healthy sample size. When they’re on, 56 per cent of the shots are hitting the enemy’s net. And the 28 5-on-5 goals scored by the Leafs with Muzzin and Holl on the ice top all other Toronto pairs, per NaturalStatTrick.com.

“Muzz is a great partner to play with — he makes my job easy. He’s really smart. He’s physical. He talks a lot. He’s really good at standing at the line and eliminating those zone entries,” Holl said. “I really can’t find a bad thing to say about him. He’s great offensively, too. So, I think all over the ice he’s a dependable partner. He’s got a lot of experience for me to lean on.”

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Muzzin and Holl have spent hours dissecting video together and discussing various plays and cycle-busting options. They are well aware that the Columbus Blue Jackets will try to impose a heavy game beneath the dots and that quick gap closes and rapid zone exits will be critical to winning the best-of-five set that begins Aug. 2.

“They’re definitely aggressive on the forecheck and they are a lot to handle at times, so it’s going to be really important for us to break out clean and limit their opportunities to really get buzzin’ around the O-zone,” said Holl, who pinpoints winger Cam Atkinson as a threat.

“They’re a team that doesn’t give up a whole lot defensively, which means that they kind of wait for you to make a mistake. So, we’re going to have to be prepared to take the counterpunch.”

That preparation has been ongoing for months now. Muzzin, who blocked a shot and suffered a broken foot in late February, has been rehabbing and skating throughout the pandemic at Ford Performance Centre is ready to roll.

Holl said goodbye to his wife in Minnesota the minute general manager Kyle Dubas called in June to tell him the Leafs’ practice facility had been approved as a quarantine facility.

“I literally jumped in my car and just started driving,” Holl said of the 14-hour road trip.

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You would too if you’d been waiting 28-and-a-half years for your first taste of do-or-die NHL action.

“It’s going to be a big role, and I think we’re both super excited for it,” Holl said. “Everyone’s got a lot sharper — us included — and we’re just working our way toward being ready to play Game 1.”

As he prepares to leave his family, Muzzin, the conscience of the pairing, reminds that “whoever wants it the most, executes the best, is going to come out on top.”

If Muzzin and Holl can bottle the type of stifling performance they displayed on that frigid night in Alberta, they can be difference-makers.

“Two big guys that have good sticks,” Keefe said. “It’s just been something that we found a good level of consistency with, and we don’t see a reason to mess with that.”

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