Jerry D'Amigo found out a few minutes before the opening faceoff of his sixth NHL game that he would be part of the shutdown effort against the best line in the NHL, the Chicago Blackhawks trio of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa.
"It was right before we went out for the national anthems," the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie winger said after an optional practice Sunday. "I was kind of shocked. I didn't think it was going to happen. I kind of did a little, 'Wow, are you sure about that?'"
D'Amigo's centre, Jay McClement, has been around the NHL long enough to know the timing of Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle's decision was by design.
"Randy doesn't give you a whole lot of heads-up going into it," McClement said. "Sometimes, it's better not to think about it too much."
This is particularly so in the case of a 22-year-old forward who had all of five NHL games under his belt. Up until last Saturday's 7-3 win over the Blackhawks, D'Amigo was allotted a few minutes per game on the fourth line, but a two-game suspension to forward David Clarkson opened a spot on the third line and the big assignment. It was one that would have seemed daunting to D'Amigo had he had time to think about it. Just standing opposite Hossa, 34, was intimidating.
"I was definitely looking up at him and wanted to say, 'Hey, I always watched you growing up,'" D'Amigo said. "But it was all business."
It certainly was, as D'Amigo, McClement and Nikolai Kulemin shut down the Blackhawks' big line and scored two goals themselves, including D'Amigo's first NHL goal and assist.
That also means another big assignment awaits: shutting down another of the league's best lines Monday in Pittsburgh (the Penguins trio of Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis).
"It's up to the coach to make that decision," D'Amigo said. "If it happens to be my time to play against [Crosby], I'm going to play my hardest and try to do against him what we did against Chicago."
What they did against Chicago was use D'Amigo's speed, McClement's smarts and Kulemin's physical game to keep Toews, Hossa and Sharp off the scoreboard. Not bad, considering the Blackhawks went into the game with three consecutive wins and had outscored the opposition 17-6.
"I think what killed Chicago was our cycle game," D'Amigo said. "We kept them in their zone more often than not, created a lot of chances and shut them down early; kind of put them to sleep."
D'Amigo says he is trying to catch up to all the text messages hailing his dream game. He grabbed the puck from his first goal, although the team quickly took it to make up the customary commemorative plaque for players, and he made sure to put his stick in a safe place, although he isn't sure that was the right thing to do.
"I took the stick home with me," D'Amigo said. "It was a hot stick so I don't know, it was pretty questionable, but I took it home and kept it in a safe place."
Hot stick or not, it is not goals that will keep D'Amigo with the Leafs after an extended apprenticeship with the Toronto Marlies farm team. He got the call because of his defensive game and penalty killing.
D'Amigo was given a regular turn on the penalty killing unit in the Leafs' last two games, and it has gone 1-for-4 – not a stellar number, but a definite improvement for a struggling group.
"You just wait and, hopefully, get your shot, and I got my shot on the penalty kill to help them out a bit," D'Amigo said. "I think we're gradually getting better at that as well. There's more skill up here. You have to take that into account when you're penalty killing. You have to be smarter, more aware, and limit your mistakes."
The Leafs could get a break as the Penguins could be without centre Evgeni Malkin (foot) and defenceman Kris Letang (undisclosed).
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