TORONTO — There’s an old adage we’ve heard hundreds of times about blue-liners like Mark Giordano, the ones that make their names in the defensive side of the game. Their best performances, so it goes, are the ones you don’t notice.
They’re the ones patched together quietly in the background while the high-flyers do what they do. A reel with no highlights at all, just a steady stream of steady plays. On a Wednesday night at Scotiabank Arena, with his parents in the building as he debuted for his boyhood club, Giordano showed the hometown crowd what that looked like.
Coming over from the Seattle Kraken at the trade deadline, the 38-year-old had little time to adjust to his new normal. With one practice under his belt, he stepped onto the ice Wednesday into a whirlwind back-and-forth between two speed-hungry squads in the Toronto Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils. And while the game’s key moments all came elsewhere on the sheet — a pair of shorthanded goals and some Matthews-to-Marner magic delivering the 3-2 win — Giordano gave his new club just the type of performance the Leafs had expected of him.
“He’s really steady,” Mitch Marner said of his new teammate after the game. “He makes a lot of great plays, especially in the O-zone, looking for a lot of tips, a lot of plays around the net, just to try and get the puck there. Overall, just really steady. Just a calming presence back there.”
Comb through the footage, and you’ll see No. 55 popping up with a timely play more often than not, moving pucks out of the Maple Leafs’ zone with ease, clogging up passing lanes with his stick, or stabbing at opposing players’ blades to knock pucks loose before the pass even comes. You’ll see him standing Devils up at the blue line, their intended sprints to the cage ending with the puck floating quietly to the corner, or launching his 200-pound frame at them along the boards, cutting attempts off there.
There was one moment late in the second period that serves as one such dose of steadiness. The score was knotted up at 2-2, and with just under 18 seconds remaining in the frame, Giordano’s young blue-line partner, Timothy Liljegren, iced the puck. The faceoff came back into Toronto’s zone, Auston Matthews lining up across from Nico Hischier, the Devils hungry for a late goal with Marner having one-timed away their lead just minutes earlier. The puck fell, Hischier won it, and as he slid it back to his defender, Giordano swooped in between, collected the biscuit, and wired it off the boards to settle safely in the neutral zone.
It wasn’t a game-saver, or a thrilling display — just a quiet bit of veteran savvy to get the puck to safety and move things along.
“You talk about his comfort level, my comfort level was high,” coach Sheldon Keefe said of his new defenceman’s debut. “When he was out there and the puck got on his stick, things seemed to settle down. You can just tell, he’s a veteran. He knows how to play.
“Despite coming in, new teammates, new city, new system, all those kinds of things, he’s confident, moving pucks, defending, getting in people’s way. I really liked what I saw in his play tonight.”
Oddly enough, the 38-year-old’s most noticeable moment was one that, officially, didn’t happen at all — early in the third, as the puck sailed into the Maple Leafs’ zone, Giordano knocked it out of mid-air as its intended Jersey target fell to the ice beside him, an arm flying up for a tripping call. But as he made his way to the box, the officials conferred and agreed he was innocent, presumably coming to the conclusion that it was far too unsteady a moment for the steady veteran.
Stoic as his performance might’ve been, though, the 18,739 filling the Scotiabank Arena stands weren’t as reserved, "ooooh’s" swelling from the crowd any time the former Calgary Flame got the puck on his stick in the offensive zone and loaded up for a shot.
A worthy reception for the hometown kid who went from an undrafted hopeful to a Norris Trophy winner.
“I felt good all day,” Giordano said of his mindset coming into his debut, after it was all said and done. “I remember coming here when I was a young guy. I had some nerves today, but not really — I felt really excited. I love the way we play.”
Granted his first up-close look at the Maple Leafs' high-octane skill after years of being on the other side of those bits of Matthews-Marner wizardry, the new guy was pleased with what he saw — and, naturally, it was their defensive details that caught his eye, rather than the highlight-reel playmaking.
“I was really impressed,” he said post-game. “You know, just little one-on-one puck battles in the D-zone, I think our forwards do a really good job of making sure (there’s) second efforts, getting those pucks, winning those little stick battles. That’s an important area of the game, and I found tonight, making a couple mistakes here and there, guys really help you out and recover for you. So, it was nice to see. It wasn’t a perfect game by any means, but I thought we did a pretty good job throughout.”
As for the warm welcome he got from the crowd, particularly when he was announced as part of the starting lineup, prompting a bevy of cheers to rain down, Giordano turned his gratitude to Keefe.
“It was cool — any time Coach does something like that for you, it’s well-appreciated. It was a nice reception, so I’m happy with that,” he said. “And obviously the win makes the night even sweeter.”
• The Maple Leafs’ penalty-kill led the night, the unit netting two goals to make up for some otherwise suspect special-teams play. Said Keefe of why the PK has generated so much offence this season: “A lot of speed, tenacity — it’s a pressure kill. So, we’re applying pressure, we’re putting people in bad spots. And our guys anticipate very well. … It’s the instincts of the players, the speed to close quickly, and then the skill level to make plays and finish plays. That was obviously huge today.”
• Coming off a tumultuous stretch for himself and the Maple Leafs’ goaltending picture in general, Petr Mrazek got back in the win column Wednesday, earning praise from his coach for the performance: “I thought he looked really good," said Keefe. "I thought he looked calm and confident. (It’s a) tough game — you only get a few shots in that first period, not a lot of work, and the couple of shots he got were tough saves there. Then all of a sudden in the second period things turned, and there were a lot more really good looks for them that I thought he looked good (on). That was a great step for him.”