NEW YORK CITY – When Gerry Holl saw his 26-year-old son, Justin, score a goal in his NHL debut Wednesday in Toronto, the proud father was struck with disbelief as he sat on his couch in Minnesota.
“Are we in a dream?” he wondered.
Indeed, Mr. Holl. Even better: It’s a recurring one.
The younger Holl — a late-blooming American Hockey League emergency call-up defenceman who was skating for the farm team’s farm team but three seasons ago — opened the scoring Thursday night at Madison Square Garden through a smart Zach Hyman screen.
Holl’s career stat line now features two goals in two games in two nights. He’s the first Leafs defencemen in 100 years of organizational history to accomplish such a feat. (Only five other defencemen in NHL history have done it.)
That early marker would hold up as the game-winner, as Holl and the Toronto Maple Leafs never glanced back.
With their decisive 4-0 road victory over the New York Rangers, a bubble team that was granted six days to rest up for this one, the Leafs extended their longest winning streak since mid-November to four.
They’ve outscored the opposition 16-3 over that span, and that’s with No. 1 defenceman Morgan Rielly sidelined.
Dressed in a suit, Rielly popped his head into the victorious dressing room and yelled at the rookie, who was holding court with a knot of reporters.
“Hollsy, congrats! First Leaf to do it back-to-back, D-men!”
The Marlie graduate’s Leafs teammates had a blast poking fun at Holl’s instant scoring streak.
“Those goals, that’s great. Good for him,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock in a dismissive tone.
“That’s not what I’m looking at. Can you break the puck out? Does he know where to stand in the D zone? Can he play the rush? Big guy, skates good, very intelligent. Looks like a good hockey player to me.”
Holl’s strike ignited a frenzied Leafs attack that accomplished all of its damage in the game’s first 23 minutes.
James Van Riemsdyk reached the 20-goal plateau for a fifth time with a nifty backhand five-hole slip past Henrik Lundqvist. Patrick Marleau dusted off his slap shot, fooling Lundqvist blocker-side. And Hyman deked the King in tight, prematurely ending the future Hall of Famer’s night and quieting MSG for good.
In three 2017-18 starts versus Toronto, Lundqvist has lost them all and only hung around for the final buzzer once. His career save percentage versus the Leafs has now dipped below .900.
“They use their speed and their transition game to hurt us,” says Lundqvist. “The desperation needs to be there now every night. It’s hard. You feel like you let people down when you don’t get the job done.”
Lundqvist, Rick Nash, Alain Vigneault — they all commented on the Leafs’ accelerated pace.
“Now we’ve started to score, we’ve got into a rhythm. We’re playing way quicker,” Babcock confirmed.
“A lot of times we bring the kids up in the National Hockey League before they’re ready. They’ve got no confidence. If you get them here when they’re overripe, they got a better chance of staying.”
When Holl stood beside Rangers forward Kevin Hayes during a face-off, the fellow 2010 draftee congratulated him.
“Yeah. I only made it five years after you,” Holl quipped.
As a second-rounder unable to gain traction in the Blackhawks organization, Holl’s determination was tested in 2014-15, when he was a minus defender for the ECHL’s Indy Fuel.
“I don’t think I would’ve played in the East Coast League another year,” Holl says. “I really did feel like I still had something to give, I still could contribute to some team somewhere. I just kept working and here we are.”
Because Justin was recalled under such tight circumstances Wednesday, Gerry had to join the club’s annual father’s trip a day late.
But Dad was here Thursday in sport’s most famous cathedral, wearing a No. 3 HOLL sweater, conducting his own interviews, and seeing what dreams look like in real life.
Gerry isn’t exactly the type of man to let a dream die. It wasn’t so long ago that he embarked on a cycling expedition from Alaska to Mexico, despite pushback from a family who thought it was too dangerous of an adventure for the old guy.
As a safety concession, Gerry bought a GPS locator, Justin says, but he chucked it in the garbage before hopping on the saddle.
“He’s kind of a free spirit. He was an office monkey for a long time providing for us,” Justin laughs. “I was behind him, but at the same time, he’s crazy.
“I’m sure he’s having a lot of fun with all the dads in the box.”
Feel free to label it Dad Strength — and it’s hereditary. (“Shout out to Mom!” pipes Holl.)
The Leafs have run off back-to-back shutouts with the men who brought them into this world high-fiving in the suites and wearing custom “Father’s Trip 2018” caps produced exclusively for the mini holiday.
“It’s a blast every single time. It’s probably my dad’s favourite part of the year,” says Jake Gardiner, who grew up skating the same Lake Minnetonka ponds as Holl.
“I mentioned potentially bringing my brother this year, and he kyboshed that pretty quick. Speaking for all the dads, they just get super excited.”
The Leafs will escort their fathers to Boston Friday for a day off before facing the divisional rival they’re chasing, the Bruins, Saturday at TD Garden.
“When your dad is here, your family is here, you always try to play good. It’s important you put your best foot forward. You want your parents to be proud of you,” Babcock said.
“I’m 54 and I still want my folks to be proud of me, so why wouldn’t these guys?”