TORONTO – Look at these as opportunities, the coach keeps saying.
These are the true measuring-stick games, when you either show up or you might as well not even bother for the next four months.
“I believe you want to get to be known as a player as one of the guys who gets it done at this time of year,” Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said.
“You want to be a big-moment player, so you have to be in the big moments and you have to relax and skate and do what you do.”
No one has been harder this year on smile-on-his-face, Bon Jovi–in-his-shimmy, purple-fedora-on-his-noggin Mitchell Marner than Babcock. The coach kept shuffling the kid through so many linemates, you’d think he was trying to hide the Old Maid.
But on a night when Marner was the Maple Leafs’ best skater, and in a series where he’s proven their most valuable player not wearing a mask and pads, it’s difficult to argue that the tough love isn’t paying off.
Marner has emerged from the doghouse a pit bull, albeit one with defensive responsibilities.
Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk have hands but aren’t the fastest guys anymore? Let Marner drive the line.
Nazem Kadri is enduring the worst scoring drought of his career? Put him with 16.
Tomas Plekanec looks like a non-factor with his new club? See what Mitchy can do.
And so it was, with the Maple Leafs season in the balance Monday night, that Marner began every one of his 5-on-5 shifts (with Plekanec and adoptive dad Patrick Marleau) in the defensive zone, mostly against the holy Corsi trinity of Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak.
Yes, Marner & Co. may have borne the brunt of shot attempts—that’s what Frederik Andersen is for—but they delivered when it mattered.
With the score locked at ones in the second period, Bergeron failed to clear the Bruins zone and Marchand fumbled at a puck in the slot. A rare window, and Marner pounced.
The local boy, who’s spent two winters trying to shake his pass-first habit, gobbled the loose puck and whipped a twirling backhand shot that beat Tuukka Rask to the far bar.
“Spin-o-ram. Just shoot it,” Marner says. “Didn’t look at the net that much. I kinda thought he’d be coming over. Lucky enough, hit the post and went in.
“It feels great. We knew we’d have to steal some games in Boston, and now we have to steal two.”
Spotlight, centre ice, fist pump, game winner.
Later, in the final ticks, Marner would help ice the 3-1 victory by springing Plekanec for an empty-netter, sending the only Round 1 series still living to a seventh game, Wednesday in Boston.
“He’s unbelievable. I’ve been so impressed by him since I got here,” Plekanec said. “I knew he was a great player; I’ve played against him. Then to come in here and see the way he plays… there’s nothing much to say.”
In last spring’s Game 6 versus Washington, Marner never even had a shot on net, duplicating his ineffectiveness from Game 5. Those with snap judgments wondered about his size, his fortitude, even his future in this market. They can’t possibly keep all three, can they?
Now, Marner leads Toronto in playoff scoring and plus/minus: two goals and six assists for eight points, with a plus-4 rating. He’s yet to finish his second post-season series and already has four multi-point playoff games. Already doubling his ’17 playoff production, Marner’s number is getting called by Coach in crunch time during elimination games.
“The big players got to come to play,” Marner said. “That’s the thing I’ve noticed.”
How much can a young man grow in 365 days?
On multiple occasions this season, Marner has stood before microphones and spoken eloquently about murders in the GTA. Again, he’s a 20-year-old hockey player.
“This world is made for loving each other and making each other better, and the things that have been happening this last year are unfortunate,” he said Monday night. “We have to stop them some way, somehow. It was a big win for us after an emotional day.”
As for literal growth, Zach Hyman says, Marner’s devotion to bulk up has accelerated his effectiveness. You’ll now see him taking head punches from Brad Marchand and scrambling back up. Following one heated exchanged Monday, Marner chirped Torey Krug all the way to the bench.
“He’s a completely different player than he was a year ago,” Hyman says.
“He’s playing with confidence right now. He’s all over the puck. He’s playing in a shutdown role as well and he’s still producing, so I can’t say enough good things about him.
“You get a year under your belt in the league, and you get more confidence. You’re stronger physically, but you’re also stronger mentally, being like, ‘I can hold onto this puck longer.’ And he’s doing it.”
Marner talks about trust in the Leafs dressing room. Several times he’s called the relationship between these 20-some men “a brotherhood.” Yet despite his unique set of skills, surely there were days over the 82-game roller coaster where Marner felt like the runt.
“He’s learned how to win, he’s learned how to be F3, he’s learned how to track a puck, he’s learned how to compete. He has all those things, plus his skill set,” Babcock said.
“What he’s done at playoff time is put his work ahead of his skill, and he is having success.”
Before leaving home ice as the Game 6 star, Marner was swallowed in a hug by Carlton, a giant teddy bear. Unlike his grown-up performance, the photo won’t do much for his adolescent image.
Last time the Maple leafs hopped on a plane to play a Game 7 in Boston, Marner was an actual kid. All of 15.
“I was at my house. I kinda remember watching. Then, what happened, I just turned off the TV and started playing video games,” Marner said.
“Like every Toronto kid, it was pretty heartbreaking. Hopefully it’s a different result this time.”
This time he’s mature enough to have a say.