Leafs’ Marincin plays unlikely hero vs. Canucks: ‘I was so, so happy’

After four goals in an end-to-end first period, Martin Marincin eventually scores the winner for the Toronto Maple Leafs after collecting his own rebound and burying the puck past the Vancouver Canucks.

TORONTO – Unlikely heroes are the best kind of heroes.

So, when Martin Marincin gathered a John Tavares pass at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ own blue line with a head of steam, precisely no one inside Scotiabank Arena could’ve imagined him taking the thing all alone into the Vancouver Canucks’ zone and authoring a rare game-winner.

“You get the nice little toe-drag around the defender, hit it right off the off the post and went in for the rebound. It’s beautiful,” said Travis Dermott, who erupted alongside pal Justin Holl and the rest of the home bench. “Hollsy and I looked at each in disbelief.

“It’s hilarious. I think every guy on the bench was smiling, laughing.”

Auston Matthews couldn’t help but smile at the highlight-reel goal he had no part of in Saturday’s 4-2 win.

“He surprised himself a bit. Everybody else was surprised. It’s not every night you see a guy, six-(foot)-five, who kinda plays a shutdown role do something like that,” Matthews said.

“You don’t see it often from ol’ Marv, so when he brings it out, it’s usually a treat.”

David Ayres returned to the scene of the crime and got an up-close look as the club he defeated in this building seven days ago continues to go about the business of exorcizing his ghost.

Sparked by that clutch go-ahead goal from Marincin — next to Ayres and Carlton the Bear, probably the Leafs employee least likely to play Hockey Night in Canada hero — Toronto has now recorded three consecutive regulation wins for the first time since Jan. 4.

“It’s been a while since we’ve done that, so it’s big for us. You want to be coming into form around this time of year,” said Zach Hyman, who is built for grinding out the messy ones. “They’re not perfect games, for sure, but they’re all wins.”

The consistency that has eluded this group all month is actually starting to take root.

Could you believe it would be Marincin, who hadn’t scored an NHL goal in nearly a full calendar year (March 15, 2019) and has gathered a grand total of four in his career, to supply the winner?

Maybe.

Call it a Leap Day miracle.

Call it a wake-up call heard loud and clear.

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Either way, Marincin’s Leafs are now 3-0 after suffering the double whammy of losing to a Zamboni driver and losing their best pure defender, Jake Muzzin, to a broken hand.

“There’s a real shock to the system when you have a night like that, right? You really get everyone’s attention,” said coach Sheldon Keefe, thinking back to the loss to Ayres and the Carolina Hurricanes. “It’s been a collective effort.”

Goals were easy to come by early.

The first shot directed at each net bent mesh, and four of the game’s first nine shots on goal were good.

In the Canucks’ case, Thatcher Demko failed to get a piece of pucks fired outside the dangerous slot area by Frederik Gauthier and Matthews, who rang a pair of posts and was buzzing all night.

In the Toronto end, the home side’s inexperienced defence corps gave up chances in tight on Frederik Andersen, who was beaten by Tyler Motte and Tanner Pearson.

The goaltenders found their groove and the defences clamped down in a blank-sheet second period, setting up an important final frame, as both clubs tussle for their post-season lives.

Stay-at-home defender Marincin, who would not even be dressing for such an important contest were it not for the rash of injuries to Toronto’s regulars, led that rush and snapped the tie just 18 seconds into the third period.

“I was so, so happy,” Marincin beamed. “Yeah, it’s not my role, but I like it. I think every player likes it, scoring goals. I can do it. Just I have to be more active.

“I like this play. I always play like that in junior and AHL. Keefer is OK with that, and he trusts me.”

It was D.J. Smith, the Leafs’ former assistant who dubbed Marincin “The Specialist” for his ability to use his long stick to break up plays and kill penalties. Although Smith moved on to Ottawa, the nickname has stuck.

“He always called me like ‘Specialist’ because my stick was too good,” said Marincin, who was given the team’s Raptors game ball for his heroics. “Yeah, I got it. First time. It’s a good feeling.

“They were happy for me, and I was happy for them.”

In any other month, The Specialist’s special snipe might’ve gone down as the strangest occurrence within these walls.

As they’ve done all week, the Leafs held on. They refused to cave. They defended hard and finished strong.

Could this actually be a trend?

Maybe.

Zach Hyman added an empty-netter, tying his career-high in goals (21) despite playing 24 fewer games.

“They call him the Sidney Crosby of 6-on-5,” Matthews quipped.

The Florida Panthers, Toronto’s fiercest pursuer for the third seed in the Atlantic Division, picked up just a single point Saturday by virtue of their shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks and have fallen five points behind.

“We got some good momentum,” Dermott said. “Just try to ride it.”

The Maple Leafs escape the snow and fly west Sunday for next week’s annual swing through California next week, an opportunity to pile up points against lottery-bound opponents.

They’ll be packing some precious cargo on that voyage, as injured defencemen Morgan Rielly (foot) and Cody Ceci (ankle) will hop aboard and begin practising with the club.

Surely, tales of Marincin’s big night — he also blocked a game-high six shots and delivered a team-high three hits in 20-plus minutes of work — will be retold with zest.

“It’s always nice when a guy that like that gets it, because he takes a lot of heat around here,” Keefe said.

“He’s bounced around and up and down, in and out, all that kind of stuff. But he’s a guy when you call upon him, he gives you everything that he has. And that’s all we can ask for.”

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