SAN JOSE, Calif. — If every game was this much fun, Patrick Marleau would probably try and play another 1,600 of them.
The Toronto Maple Leafs got their veteran teammate a highly coveted victory in his second return to SAP Center and they did so with the kind of performance that reminded why he took a leap of faith to join them in the first place.
There are only a small handful of teams in the NHL who score like the Leafs. Even with Auston Matthews out injured these last three weeks and William Nylander missing in action all season because of strained contract talks, Toronto’s 3.58 goals per game is second only to Colorado at 3.61.
As we saw Thursday at the Shark Tank, they can allow three goals in the opening period and not even flinch. The Leafs made up for it by getting a fourth-line strike off the stick of Josh Leivo, then creating a shorthanded breakaway for Kasperi Kapanen’s second goal of the game and finally seeing Mitchell Marner finish bar-down after goalie Frederik Andersen lofted a 110-foot pass into his hands at the far blue line.
“That’s been our story, our depth,” Nazem Kadri said after a 5-3 victory over the San Jose Sharks. “We’ve been talking about it for so long it’s about time we put it to use. We play good structure, we have guys step up in key moments, contributions out of everybody, especially playing some tough road games we’ve been able to have a lot of success, which is good to see.”
They are now 13-6-0 and one point back of Tampa for the Atlantic Division lead. They’ll take an 8-1-0 road record into Anaheim on Friday to finish out this swing through California. And they should be feeling awfully good after delivering a strong performance for Marleau, who experienced a swirl of emotions upon stepping back into this building.
“Being on the other side for so many years and then coming on this side it’s a little different,” he said. “But I’m just glad we got the two points tonight and everybody played great.”
It’s clear that this was more than just another one of 1,594 games on his impressive NHL resume. Marleau’s wife, Christina, and their four sons flew down to watch from the stands and the couple hosted the Leafs at their family home for a dinner on Wednesday night.
— Christina Marleau (@c_marleau) November 16, 2018
The Marleau boys exchanged hugs with Matthews and Marner and Andersen as each walked to the bus afterwards. They also managed to go viral during this trip when Marner posted an Instagram video of them singing along to “YMCA” in their own version of carpool karaoke.
Marleau has been a steadying presence on a Leafs team that appears to be growing into its reputation. He’s taken Marner and Matthews under his wing, in particular, and is constantly held up as an example of someone who knows exactly what it takes to navigate the grind of a NHL season.
“Rather than some coach telling ya, this is just a guy living it every day,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “If you want to measure yourself and where you’re going, we’ve got a lot of young guys who have a chance to have good careers if they want to do it right.”
Getting a victory over the wily Sharks required turning the other cheek. It started right from the opening faceoff when Barclay Goodrow tried to engage with Kadri and wound up drawing a roughing penalty after just eight seconds.
John Tavares made it 1-0 by banking in a shot just as that minor expired.
Not long after the Sharks tied it up, Marleau slid the puck over to Kapanen on a 2-on-1 and saw him beat Martin Jones high. It was the first career point for the 39-year-old winger against San Jose, the team that drafted him first overall in 1997.
He’s now hit the scoresheet against all 31 active teams, plus a few more no longer in existence.
“The guy’s a legend,” said Kapanen. “He’s the GOAT. Just to be able to get a pass from him and put it in is obviously a good feeling.”
Still, the Leafs found themselves trailing 3-2 at the first intermission. Erik Karlsson was working the puck around well on the Sharks blue line and had two assists. San Jose’s power play produced a tap-in for Joe Pavelski.
During the break, Babcock emphasized the importance of using speed to create offensive chances and then saw Josh Leivo finish off a rush with Tyler Ennis and Kapanen bury his breakaway chance after Marner wisely chipped a turnover into an area beyond Pavelski.
“I don’t think they really could handle us in their zone,” said Kapanen. “We were just trying to chip it in there and then just hold on to pucks.”
They are brimming with possibility.
Andersen has a rock solid .934 save percentage and a league-best 11 wins. Toronto’s goal differential is plus-16. It has won recent games 5-0, 6-1, 5-1 and 5-3 despite playing without two-thirds of the top line from last season.
Oh, and Matthews could be back in the lineup by the end of next week.
“I think we’ve just got to continue building a foundation,” said Marleau.