TORONTO – Nikita Zaitsev had found his long-awaited first NHL goal.
Next, he looked for his father.
There was no mistaking the enthusiasm that accompanied his big milestone, with Zaitsev stashing the Warrior stick he used to score on Marc-Andre Fleury and ear-marking the puck for a trip to Moscow.
He has been more of the strong, silent type since joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, but this? This was different.
“It’s like [I’m] 17 years old right now,” said Zaitsev. “Unbelievable feelings.”
“My family is in town,” he explained. “Today, they decide not to watch the game in the rink. So they’re in a bar. It’s unbelievable.”
At least his parents were in close proximity for a moment that was years in the making. Zaitsev arrived in Toronto this past summer after spending seven seasons in the KHL and quickly found a place on the Leafs’ top pairing with Morgan Rielly.
Still, he had played 29 NHL games without a goal. And it ate at him.
Zaitsev felt he should have scored about five times with all of the chances he’d missed earlier in the year and leaned on advice from his father, Igor, whom he says has had a “crazy” amount of influence on his career.
“He teached me a lot,” said Zaitsev. “He was my idol all of my life.”
Imagine the relief of having family in town over the holidays after moving across the globe with your wife and baby daughter. Imagine the feeling of seeing the puck bounce up off the stick of Penguins defenceman Steve Oleksy, roll off Fleury’s helmet, and go in.
“I’m so happy,” said Zaitsev.
He was the perfect bellwether, really, for a Leafs team that scraped out a 2-1 overtime victory over Pittsburgh on Saturday night.
It was a game perilously close to going against Toronto despite how well it played against the defending Stanley Cup champions. This group has seen a lot of that in recent days – dropping a 52-shot effort in regulation against Colorado, blowing a late two-goal lead and losing in a shootout to San Jose, and dominating Arizona before coming out on the wrong end of another shootout.
“We’ve been in a lot of games leading in the third [period] and to pull this one out against a good team, it’s pretty important for us,” said rookie Mitch Marner, who found Jake Gardiner for the overtime winner.
“The shot count has been through the roof,” added teammate Nazem Kadri. “There’s lots of opportunities. Sometimes you just run into some hot goaltenders and they’re hard to beat.”
Kadri draws most of the praise as the centre on the forward line Leafs coach Mike Babcock deploys against his opponent’s best players, but the Rielly-Zaitsev pairing deserves credit for handling that exact same assignment.
Few chase matchups as aggressively as Babcock, especially at Air Canada Centre where he has control of the last change.
At even strength, Zaitsev saw Sidney Crosby’s line for 11:33 on Saturday night while barely facing the Evgeni Malkin (2:16), Matt Cullen (1:43), and Nick Bonino (1:22) trios. There weren’t many easy minutes and this will go down as arguably Crosby’s least effective game of the season.
For good measure, the Russian defenceman also came up with a key blocked shot on the Penguins captain during a late 5-on-3 power play where the Leafs were holding on for dear life.
“He usually scores I think from there,” said Zaitsev. “He and Geno, it’s their favourite spot. I feel really good after that.”
He was far from alone.
Frederik Andersen could smile after getting a victory to go with his 33 saves, and will face the Anaheim Ducks – his former team – on Monday with his save percentage now sitting at a very respectable .919 on the season.
Gardiner logged big minutes, Rielly generated six shots on goal, and worker bee Zach Hyman was a thorn in the Penguins’ side. Really, it was a story of some much-needed team success.
“In order to be a good team you’ve got to believe you’re a good team,” said Kadri. “I think our confidence is growing. Even the games we do lose it seems like we should have won. Throughout an 82-game season, those games are going to even out. We’re hoping it does that.”
Earlier in the day, team president Brendan Shanahan spoke to a group of minor hockey coaches and said the most difficult thing for him is remaining patient.
It’s a challenge for everyone here.
Take Zaitsev. He’s a 25-year-old who dominated the KHL and has high expectations despite the many challenges built in to his new situation. Perhaps some success will free him up to perform even better.
“It gives me a little bit more confidence because I was waiting for that goal,” said Zaitsev.
“We do have a young team,” said Gardiner. “I think everyone knows exactly what they’re doing now. There’s no excuses. They are young, but they’re 30 games into the season now and we expect everyone to know every system.”
One way or another, the best is yet to come.