Following a rare seven-day break in the schedule, the Maple Leafs were preparing Monday for a particularly tough stretch before the Christmas holidays – and a couple roster members who haven’t seen action at the NHL level in quite some time were the most excited to get back to work.
Goaltender Jonathan Bernier – who just finished a successful 10-day conditioning stint with the American League Toronto Marlies – and defenseman Frank Corrado (who has yet to appear in a regular-season game since the Leafs acquired him off waivers from Vancouver on Oct. 6) are both expected to play Tuesday when the Buds take on the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning at Air Canada Centre. And both have overcome their share of adversity to be where they are now – trying to take advantage of an opportunity.
That’s what the NHL is all about, according to Leafs head coach Mike Babcock.
“The bottom line is, you’re in the National Hockey League and someone just gave you an opportunity,” Babcock said after practice at the Leafs’ west-end workout facility. “What I’ve found over the years is the guys that grab hold of it stay for a long time, and if you don’t, it doesn’t go your way. So here’s your opportunity, do something with it, enjoy it.”
For Corrado – a 22-year-old Toronto native who has 28 career games of NHL experience under his belt from his time with the Canucks – the thought of playing at Air Canada Centre wearing Blue and White is something he still needs to pinch himself over every now and again.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Corrado, who joked that “half of Woodbridge” and many of his family and friends will be in attendance Tuesday. “Not too many kids get to do what I’m going to do tomorrow, so cross that one of the bucket list. It’s going to be a pretty special night, and hopefully we make it a special game as well.”
Babcock understands Corrado may have some jitters playing in front of a hometown crowd, but expects the youngster to push past that and focus on the job at hand.
“He’s been here a while and he’s going to have nerves,” Babcock said of Corrado. “He hasn’t played in a bit, he’s playing his off-side (on defense), and all those things. If you’re a Leaf fan growing up, (playing your first game in Toronto is) probably even more special to you. But you’re going to be ready for your first shift tomorrow, stay calm, go out there and do what you do.”
Corrado has spent his time in Toronto in the press box at the ACC during games, and he’s seen how rabid Leafs fans in the stands can be. It’s now his intent to give them more to cheer about.
“When the team’s playing well, the fans really support us,” Corrado said. “You can see the fans really want to explode with excitement, and we need to give them a reason. You can see there’s signs of that happening now, and it’s going to be an exciting crowd to play in front of.”
As for Bernier, the veteran goalie went to the AHL to rebuild his confidence, and with three shutouts in four games with the Marlies, he feels that mission has been accomplished. His most recent NHL action came Nov. 28 against Washington, and with Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos and the highly-talented Bolts in town, he won’t have an easy task stepping in Tuesday. But he’s pleased with the manner in which the conditioning assignment played out and welcomes the chance to continue gaining confidence in hockey’s top league.
“I just enjoyed playing games, and that was obviously the main thing - get in game shape and find my game a little bit,” Bernier said of his AHL stint. “I thought my best game was Friday in Utica. I felt really good, my positioning was good, I felt really confident. I felt good coming back up and I felt good today in practice.”
The Leafs had a full week to practice and continue developing under Babcock’s tutelage, but with five games in the next seven nights, the time for teaching is done. And for players who’d prefer to play, that’s likely for the best.
“They probably are relieved,” Babcock said. “I’ve had enough of practicing, so they’ve had more than enough. We’ve tried to push hard this week and the guys have done a nice job, but the reality is we’ve been off for a while.”
“We had some different things this week, different events for the team, different guys went out and had dinners,” added winger Joffrey Lupul. “Now, pretty much right to the Christmas break, it’s 100 percent focused on hockey.”