TORONTO – The outcome of Saturday’s game suddenly became less important than the outcome of the diagnosis.
When Mitchell Marner got tangled up with Carsen Twarynski during a centre-ice face-off in the second period, his left skate stepped on the Flyer’s blade and slid out abruptly. As a result, Marner’s right foot twisted violently, injuring his ankle to an extent that he had to hobble and crawl to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ bench, where he was fished up by his teammates.
Marner tried to participate in one more shift but crumpled when his foot couldn’t bear weight. The high-flying winger’s attempt to test out his ankle during a TV timeout only resulted in a conversation with trainer Paul Ayotte, a return to the medical table, and an announcement that he was done for the night.
He won’t travel to Chicago for Sunday’s game.
“You never know what the situation is or what’s really going on in his body and in his mind,” said Auston Matthews, before vocalizing what an entire fan base is thinking.
“I just hope he’s OK.”
Marner’s injury — severity unknown — comes as uneasy news to Leaf Nation, who has yet to watch its top line skate in full and, as a result, is getting antsy to see what the NHL’s most expensive complement of forwards can accomplish at peak health.
Dashing salt in the wound was a 3-2 Philadelphia Flyers shootout victory at Scotiabank Arena before the Leafs hit the road for eight of their next nine contests.
After a mediocre October, the Leafs have gained traction since the return of Marner’s centreman, John Tavares, from a broken finger and now have points in four straight. Expecting first-line left wing Zach Hyman (knee) back sometime next week, Toronto had appeared to be straightening its defensive game and its bill of health simultaneously.
A reminder of that was defenceman Travis Dermott (off-season shoulder surgery) jumping up in the play shortly after Marner went down, taking a pretty feed from William Nylander and joyously sniping his first goal in just his fifth game of the season.
“That was pretty much the exact same spot I scored my first goal, so nice little flashback there,” Dermott said.
“From Willy too, so that was awesome. It gets the adrenalin going even more than it usually is, so it’s nice to see the boys getting excited for you like that and definitely makes you feel right back in it.”
“I can hear him screaming from the blue line,” Matthews smiled. “He’s a really passionate guy. Loves to score, loves to win, a really good teammate, so I’m really happy for him to get that first one.”
Alas, Toronto had dug itself an 0-2 hole by that point.
Philadelphia defender Philippe Myers opened the scoring in Period 1, lasering a high shot over Frederik Andersen’s blocker that zipped out as fast as it flung in.
Philly’s leading goal-getter, Oskar Lindblom, struck next, niftily deflecting a wide Travis Konecny shot into the roof of Andersen’s cage on the power play.
But, as is so often the case this fall, Toronto roped its opponent back in after surrendering an early lead.
With the bench shortened and Leafs wingers seeing extra shifts in the third, Nylander scored his fifth off a pretty backhand feed from Auston Matthews to knot the game at two goals apiece.
Matthews later admitted he was attempting an Andrei Svechnikov–style lacrosse goal from behind the net and only fed his wingman after the puck slipped off his flattened blade.
“It was close,” Nylander said.
“But it ended up right on my tape, so it was nice.”
A thrilling, seesaw overtime brimming with open looks, clanged posts and odd-man rushes solved nothing, unless you count boredom.
“You really want to get that extra point, especially with how hard we worked to get back in that situation,” Matthews said.
Nylander scored in the skills contest, but Claude Giroux (fully cocked slapshot) and Sean Couturier (slick deke) countered with daggers as Flyers-Leafs required more than 65 minutes for a second straight Saturday.
The urgency to fill Marner’s spot in the lineup — Does Jason Spezza climb down from the press box? Does Kyle Dubas recall a body from the Marlies? — kicks in immediately as the Maple Leafs quickly packed their gear and hopped a charter to Chicago on Saturday night.
Tired and banged up, the Maple Leafs will take on the Blackhawks without their leading point-producer of the past two seasons, their premier passer, their power-play maestro, and their penalty-killing water bug.
What do the Maple Leafs miss when you subtract Marner from the equation?
“Really, the heartbeat of our locker room,” Tavares said recently. “His attitude on a daily basis, the work ethic he brings, and the amount of fun he has.”
Minutes before boarding a charter, Babcock — winner of 700 games — found himself at a loss.
“Well, I mean, what are you going to do?” the coach said. “It’s hockey. Injuries happen and you find out more about other guys. I don’t know the extent of this. I don’t know if it’s a few days or weeks or whatever.
“There’s no sense on dwelling on it. Someone else gets an opportunity. Let’s go.”