DENVER — Tyson Barrie posed for a photo with Nathan MacKinnon. He hugged Gabe Landeskog. He signed autographs, clasped hands with arena staff, poked his head inside a baby carriage and embraced several wives and girlfriends of his former Colorado Avalanche teammates.
Talk about a hero’s welcome in his return to Pepsi Center.
"It’s been a crazy, crazy day," said Barrie. "Kind of everything I could hope for."
The Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman crammed a month’s worth of emotions into the last week and punctuated it with a goal and an assist in a 5-3 victory here Saturday.
The evening also included a long video tribute to Barrie during the first television timeout, a standing ovation and a turn as the game’s first star. It really gave you a sense of how meaningful of an impact he made during eight years in Denver, both on the ice and in the community.
It was also a reminder why the Leafs were willing to part with Nazem Kadri — their own homegrown, heart-and-soul player — in the July 1 trade that brought over Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot.
We are only just starting to see what he can be for Toronto now that the shackles have been taken off. Some of those were placed there by himself as he struggled to adjust to his new situation and grew frustrated about his lack of production.
There’s no question he’s benefitted from Sheldon Keefe’s decision to elevate him to the top power-play unit. It took just 22 seconds for Barrie to find the back of the net on the Leafs’ first man advantage opportunity against the Avs, sliding down from the point and burying a nice William Nylander pass.
Make that goals in two straight games after going 0-for-23 to start the season.
"It felt really good to get that one here," said Barrie. "Not that there’s any ill will with this team, but coming home in front of all the familiar faces it’s nice to get one."
Barrie can be a high-risk, high-reward player.
What Keefe wants to do is find situations where he can succeed in order to rebuild the confidence lost during a slow start. The new Leafs coach gave Barrie a heavy dose of offensive zone starts and saw his team generate 75 per cent of the scoring chances while he was on the ice.
"He’s got a unique skillset; he needs to be very involved and very active in the offence," said Keefe. "When he’s not and he’s holding back, even if he were confident, it’s not going to help him.
"We need him to be engaged, we need him to be on his toes, we need him to be involved."
He certainly makes the Leafs a more dynamic team. You saw glimpses of their globetrotting potential in a high-speed track meet against Colorado — particularly during a four-goal first period that chased Philipp Grubauer from the goal.
They couldn’t sustain that surge, however, and needed Frederik Andersen to stand tall to improve to 2-0 since Keefe replaced Mike Babcock behind the bench. The final minutes ticked away like you’d expect to see in a basketball game and included Cody Ceci blocking a MacKinnon shot that would have tied it up.
That would have been a dagger considering the Leafs had built a 4-1 lead after 20 minutes.
"We just looked like a tired team out there for a lot of the game," said Keefe. "But I liked the fact that we got scored on in the first shift and, while it took us a couple of shifts there to find our way back, I thought we took over the game after that. That was really positive.
"Obviously, we built ourselves a very nice lead. That’s a good team, they’re going to push, they’re going to make it hard on us and we battled to find a way to finish it off."
That had to come with an extra shot of satisfaction for Barrie, who was mobbed by all those familiar faces before boarding the team bus. He’d been through a range of emotions on Saturday that even included a few on-ice laughs with MacKinnon, his best buddy.
"Willy, that second [scoring chance], he gave me a little bit of a wobbler. [MacKinnon] said I would have put that flat for ya," said Barrie.
No one was laughing when the Leafs got pounded 6-1 in Pittsburgh last Saturday — a game that ultimately spelled the end for Babcock. In the ensuing days, they held a rookie dinner in Las Vegas, delivered a complete victory in Keefe’s debut at Arizona and eked out a victory for two former Avs in their return to altitude.
"Night and day," said Barrie, when asked to compare this Saturday to the last one. "That was a dark place for a lot of us. That game, especially, was a bit embarrassing. To be able to go home .500 [on the road trip] and be rolling a little bit, it’s a great feeling."
His new home should feel just a little bit more comfortable after this visit to his former one.