Korbinian Holzer had a rough outing Saturday night against the high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins. The Toronto Maple Leafs rookie defenceman was on the ice for three goals-against in just 14:46 of playing time (his second lowest minute total of the season in 19 games) and was dropped from the top pairing.
Afterwards head coach Randy Carlyle said Holzer, who was playing in just his 21st career NHL game, appeared a bit "overwhelmed" by the speed of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
"I had too much respect for those guys," Holzer admitted after Monday's practice. "If you have too much respect it leads to being overwhelmed, because you back off too much, you step not into the guy, you step around him and your gap is too big and maybe it leads to being a bit overwhelmed, because they start cycling you around, they spin you around, make you pay in your end so it was all about respect and having too much respect."
Holzer put some extra time in on Monday staying out after practice to work with assistant coach Scott Gordon.
"We were just talking about the gap and if they break out with the puck just coming back and protecting the middle first and forcing them to the outside a little more and taking different routes to protect the middle and hold your gap at the same time," said Holzer. "It's little adjustments. It's always good to reinforce that and bang it into your head."
The Leafs defenceman facing the most pressure right now may be Holzer, who has struggled of late fueling talk of a potential call-up for Jake Gardiner, who has eight points in his last seven games with the Toronto Marlies while logging mega minutes. The team also has two veteran defencemen in the press box with John-Michael Liles and Mike Komisarek eager to get back in the lineup.
"I never think about that," insists Holzer. "Komo and Johnny are great guys. They help me out a lot actually, help me out with game situations and I don't think it makes you nervous at all."
Toronto lost 5-4 to Pittsburgh in a shootout on Saturday, marking the fifth time in the last six games the team allowed four goals or more and that doesn't sit well with Carlyle. As a result, much of Monday's on-ice workout focused on defensive-zone play.
'STOP THE PROGRESSION'
Carlyle implored his defencemen to "take the body" and "stop the progression" throughout the latest practice.
"We let Pittsburgh run around a bit too much in our own zone," explained Cody Franson. "We didn't stop progression enough and they were able to create some scoring chances. We got to do a better job.
"They came through the neutral zone with a lot of speed. We didn't handle the rush very well and then they cycled us pretty well in the first period and that's due to our lack of physical presence."
Carlyle singled out Holzer at one point during the practice, asking him to up his aggressive play.
"There are moments where you should be more physical, just step into a guy to beat him to the net," said Holzer, "if you go back, and even if he makes a pass around you, you just step into him and step into his path and stop progression, [stop him from] beating you to the net. There's always improvements to be made in that department."
SHAKE-UP DOESN'T LAST
Franson was promoted to the top pairing when Holzer struggled against the Penguins, marking the first time he has played alongside captain Dion Phaneuf outside of a power-play situation.
"It was good," said Franson. "It's just one of those things where, not having practiced together on the same pairing, you don't really have a feel for how the other guy plays and you're kind of picking it up as you go and the biggest thing in a situation like that, especially against a team like Pittsburgh with that much firepower, you have to talk a lot. They come out quick and they have a lot of skill, make a lot of quick, little give-and-go plays so situations like that you got to talk a lot and make sure you're in the right places and be in each other's eyes."
Holzer, meanwhile, dropped down to play with Mark Fraser. The pair formed a shutdown tandem while playing for the Marlies earlier this season.
"You just go back to work basically," said Holzer when asked about dealing with the in-game shuffle. "I played with Mark and we had a lot of success with the Marlies and he knows how I play, I know how he plays so it's not a big deal going out there with him."
But the defensive pairings were back to normal on Monday, with Phaneuf and Holzer reunited and Fraser with Franson. Carl Gunnarsson and Mike Kostka formed the other pairing while Liles and Komisarek skated together.
SHOT AT REDEMPTION
Holzer will get a shot at redemption Tuesday when the Leafs play in Winnipeg with a return engagement with Pittsburgh looming on Thursday at the Air Canada Centre. Holzer admits he's looking forward to getting another chance at slowing down Crosby and company.
"The good thing is I can't look too much in the past," the 25-year-old noted. "Somebody said we don't have eyes in the back of the head, they're in the front so you don't look back. But I'm definitely keen on playing those guys again to show I'm capable of making better plays and that I can handle those guys. I think after the first period I got adjusted to it a bit. I can definitely play a lot better. I definitely can't wait to play them again."
Helping ease Holzer's mind as he learns some lessons in his first true NHL test was a two-year contract extension signed last week.
"It just shows you that you did a lot of good things out there and I think it helps your confidence, but on the other side I don't take much out of that contract extension, because I'm just a little part of the team here," he said.
"There's definitely a lot of room to improve, but on the other side it's a work-in-progress and I'm just trying to soak up as much as I can in practice and games and try and build on that and get better every day."