Maple Leafs unable to give Marleau the San Jose return he deserved

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Patrick Marleau was greeted with open arms in his return to San Jose but his team would lose a close one to the Sharks 3-2.

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Here he is known simply as “Patty.”

It almost felt like a gathering of 17,562 friends and family as the San Jose Sharks celebrated the return of one of their own. The crowd remained on a first-name basis with Patrick Marleau even after seeing him emerge from the visiting tunnel at SAP Center – rolling out the welcome mat, not to mention at least 30 hand-made signs, for a player now wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater.

“It was extremely special, I think, to get an ovation like that and see all the signs and everything,” said Marleau. “It was really humbling and great to see.”

The fact he could sound so upbeat after a loss as ugly as this one spoke to how unique Monday truly was at SAP Center. It might have been perfect had Marleau been able to call it a night following a video tribute and warm standing ovation that stretched on for more than a minute.

Instead, the Leafs were under siege from about the fifth minute on and would have seen the score get much worse than 3-2 if not for the stellar play of goalie Frederik Andersen.

That didn’t sour the experience for the 38-year-old winger who was playing his first-ever game against the Sharks after dressing in 1,493 for them. Marleau’s wife, Christina, dabbed away tears in the lower bowl while the spotlight trailed her husband around during the pre-game ceremony. Their four sons were decked out in Leafs gear around her.

Marleau spent Sunday night at the family’s Bay Area home and arrived a good hour before his teammates for Monday’s game. He could be seen speaking with head coach Mike Babcock in the hallway outside the Leafs dressing room.

“He earned the right to have that ceremony by being such a good human being and by playing so hard and being such a great player for so long here,” said Babcock. “[I told him] ‘Take it in and enjoy it, not many people ever get to experience something like that in their lifetime.’

“I thought it was moving to say the least.”

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Among those in attendance were a group of Jr. Sharks players wearing T-shirts that read “We Miss You” with “Marleau” and “No. 92” on the back – a nod to their former teammate, Landon, the oldest of the Marleau boys.

There were also plenty of No. 12 sweaters in all varieties dotted throughout the stadium.

Marleau failed to get his name on the scoresheet despite being one of the few Leafs with multiple scoring chances. He had a dangerous one-timer off the rush stopped by Martin Jones in the second period before driving to the net and taking a Leo Komarov pass in his skates that probably would have been a goal if it was placed six inches to the left.

“I thought that was going to be the one,” he said.

This was certainly not what Babcock had in mind when he labelled it a “big night for our team.”

There was some brief optimism when Auston Matthews put the Leafs up 1-0 with his ninth goal in 12 games – burying a shot from the slot after linemate William Nylander skated it around the net.

But the Sharks roared back, seizing control of the play and refusing to let up.

By the time Joe Pavelski tipped home a tying goal and Tim Heed ripped home a power-play blast early in the third period, San Jose enjoyed a 29-11 advantage in shots on goal. Joel Ward hit an empty net for San Jose before Nazem Kadri scored one late.

Matthews felt the Leafs needed to protect the puck better and was disappointed not to get a better result for Marleau.

“He’s an unbelievable teammate,” said Matthews. “He’s only been here for a couple of months, but he’s already made a huge impact on all of us, as a player, as a guy off the ice and definitely stings a little bit to not get this one for him but we’ll get another shot at these guys later on in the season.”

This night was all about one man.

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Marleau has been synonymous with the Sharks organization since getting drafted second overall in 1997, and now it’s time for them and him to truly head in different directions. Consider it part-thank you and part-goodbye.

“He’s Mr. Shark, he always will be, nobody will ever pass him,” said defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic. “I always thought there’ll be one number retired in the organization and it’ll be No. 12, rightfully.

“Great player, great person, good family man, I enjoyed playing with him for 11 years.”

Before the Leafs could pack up and move on, Marleau emerged from the dressing room to greet a couple visitors who waited patiently outside.

He hugged a group of former teammates that included Joe Thornton, Evgeni Nabokov and Mike Ricci, and walked off into the night.