TORONTO – It can be easy to forget that this is a tough game.
That just because certain things happen one season doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll automatically carry over to the next.
Beyond the result, there was a huge seed of hope to be found here Friday when the Toronto Maple Leafs seized victory from the jaws of defeat. It was Mitch Marner helping drive the comeback, finding James van Riemsdyk with a perfect pass in the final minute before adding his second assist on Patrick Marleau’s overtime winner.
“Confidence,” van Riemsdyk said after the 3-2 win over Boston. “I think that’s the name of the game in professional sports.”
Marner is still only 20.
He’s got a 19-goal, 61-point rookie season under his belt, but he’s still finding his way.
At least there’s mounting evidence that he’s back on the right track. Seeing Marner reunited with van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak is an indication that head coach Mike Babcock agrees. That was an extremely productive trio last season, but it was broken up last month after allowing a pile of goals against.
“I thought we had some unfortunate bounces and stuff like that you have to fight through,” said van Riemsdyk. “Obviously, when stuff like that happens things tend to get shaken up, especially when you have as much depth as we have. You’d like to think when we got a chance to play back together that we can pick up where we left off last year, and hopefully this is a step towards that.”
In the line juggling that ensued, Marner got lost in the shuffle. He was dropped to the fourth line for a stretch and is currently averaging more than a minute less per game than he played in his rookie year.
That’s gone hand-in-hand with a 17-game goalless drought that stretches all the way back to opening night. He’s generating fewer shots per game – 1.61, down from 2.29 – and has been searching for something good to happen.
“It’s great to see Mitch be important at the end and get a couple of points,” said Babcock. “He’s looking for some positive reinforcement from the game and if you work real hard the game usually rewards you. So good for him.”
It’s a reminder about how unrelenting the NHL can be. Even the best and brightest experience dips in the road from time to time.
The second tour around the league hasn’t been quite as kind to all of Toronto’s “Big 3” youngsters – with Auston Matthews due to miss his third straight game with an upper-body injury when the Leafs and Bruins play again at TD Garden, and William Nylander carrying his own 10-game goal drought into Saturday’s rematch.
Fortunately for the Leafs, the veterans have been capable contributors during a three-game win streak that followed a tough tour through California and St. Louis last week.
On Friday, van Riemsdyk scored twice – banging home a rebound on the power play in the final minute of the second period before cashing the equalizer with Frederik Andersen on the bench and a minute to play in regulation – while Marleau bagged the 101st game-winner of his career.
“Patty Marleau got his 101st game-winner – he’s got to be in the Hall of Fame, doesn’t he?” said Babcock, on a night where the 2017 Hockey Hall of Fame class was honoured.
Marner is a popular teammate inside the Leafs dressing room. Almost like the little brother some of the older guys never had.
He’s a fun-loving kid who is active in the team’s online video game battles and van Riemsdyk believes he benefitted from the tight-knit group during some of his scoring struggles.
In fact, the veteran winger believes there’s been evidence Marner turned the corner even before he reeled off five assists in the last four games.
“It’s not always going to be a perfect pass to the guy on the back door that results in an assist,” he said. “It’s going to be maybe a play where he’s supposed to shoot it and someone else gets a rebound or a play where he puts the puck into a smart area for someone else to get it. It’s not always about these wow plays that he can make.
“There’s times when those will be there, obviously, and he can make them.”
We saw it at the end of a tight-checking battle against the Bruins. This was a game the Leafs were on the verge of losing in painful fashion – with Boston’s David Pastrnak scoring a power-play goal at 14:30 of the third period – until van Riemsdyk won a puck battle to negate an icing and Toronto worked it around the offensive zone.
Eventually, Marner found his teammate with a slap pass through traffic.
“You want the puck on his stick when the game’s on the line,” said van Riemsdyk. “He’s got lots of tools in his toolbox and sees the game in a special way.”