So you can imagine how thrilled the 24-year-old was Friday to have the veteran set up his first NHL goal. Never mind that it required a member’s bounce for the Toronto Maple Leafs inside Scotiabank Arena — with Spezza throwing a pass to the high slot on the power play and seeing it bounce in off Brooks’ right skate.
“It was a lot of fun, a great moment that I’ll remember forever obviously,” said Brooks. “To say that [Spezza] assisted on my first goal, a guy that’s played for that long and of that calibre, it’s a pretty cool moment for me.
“Just the whole thing was pretty exciting.”
It helped propel the Maple Leafs to a 4-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers on a night where they played without Auston Matthews (upper body) and Joe Thornton (rib fracture), two-thirds of their No. 1 line as recently as 48 hours earlier.
Under these circumstances, goals were not going to be easy to come by.
There would have been no way to predict that Brooks would get on the board for Toronto this season before Spezza, Wayne Simmonds or Ilya Mikheyev found the back of the net. This was his first time playing in a game that counted since last February and he only had a few hours notice once it was confirmed that Matthews wasn’t able to go.
For the Leafs, that goal wiped away Edmonton’s 1-0 lead just 43 seconds after a Leon Draisaitl short-handed strike. For Brooks, it was a massive milestone on a professional journey that began when he was a fourth-round pick in 2016.
“I think there was a lot of pressure taken off me,” he said.
Some pressure was relieved for the entire team after the 3-1 loss to the Oilers earlier this week. We came into this two-game set expecting an offensive explosion and instead found two North Division combatants much more concerned about their own end of the rink.
Absent Matthews, in particular, the Leafs didn’t look nearly as imposing.
The injuries forced head coach Sheldon Keefe to rearrange all four of his lines and he found success with the Jimmy Vesey, Alexander Kerfoot and William Nylander trio. They enjoyed the better ice while largely matching up against Edmonton’s second line of Dominik Kahun-Draisaitl-Kailer Yamamoto, and saw Vesey score the 2-1 goal during a shift against Edmonton’s bottom six.
That came after Kerfoot, Vesey’s former teammate and linemate at Harvard, stole the puck from Adam Larsson beneath the goal-line and fed it to Nylander, who fooled Oilers goalie Mikko Koskinen by sliding it over.
“Kerf made a nice anticipation play and picked it off and found Willy, who made a great play to me,” said Vesey. “I think a lot of people thought he would have shot that puck but froze the goalie and slid it over. I just tried to bury it.”
The new-look line rebounded from a sputtering start to produce a sterling stat line with 88 per cent of the shot attempts, 86 per cent of the expected goals and a 5-0 advantage in shots during its nearly 10 minutes together at even strength.
“They skated well,” said Keefe. “It took them a little while to get going in the game, I thought, like it did our whole team. But they were on the puck, on the puck hard. I think what I liked mostly is that they scored us a 5-on-5 goal.
“Those have been hard to come by and it was good to get one.”
The other goals came from two usual suspects: John Tavares and Mitch Marner.
Tavares got the winner by tipping home a Marner shot after Connor McDavid had tied things up — giving the Leafs captain four power-play goals already on the season. Marner finished the job with an empty-netter.
It was a grind from start to finish, but there was satisfaction to be found in limiting the damage inflicted by McDavid and Draisaitl at even strength.
“Well I think it’s a good sign in seeing how much pride guys take in the defensive role and especially when you face two of the better players in the league,” said Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen. “It’s obviously a great task and it’s been great to see the team respond and really take that role seriously and not give them anything for free.”
It’s going to take everyone in a year this unusual.
Even players like Brooks, summoned off the taxi squad to play just his eighth career NHL game here. The Winnipegger helped add two points to the standings and claimed another souvenir in the process: The puck that pinballed off his skate and eluded Koskinen.
“I’m sure my parents will steal it and put it in their basement,” he said.