BOSTON — Hours after joking about his continued inability to grow a playoff beard, Mitch Marner stepped up like a hardened post-season performer.
At this point, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The slick winger scored twice, including on a short-handed penalty shot to give his team a lead it would never surrender, as the Toronto Maple Leafs downed the Boston Bruins 4-1 on Thursday to grab a 1-0 advantage in their best-of-seven first-round series.
Marner paced the Leafs with nine points in their seven-game exit at the hands of the Bruins at this stage some 12 months ago, and once again demonstrated an uncanny ability to step up in big moments.
"We’re a fast team," said Marner, who pointed to Toronto’s confidence as a difference this time around against Boston. "When we play right, it’s hard to stop us."
The 21-year-old got the Leafs back to even after the Bruins pulled ahead in the first period before connecting on his penalty shot with a ridiculous move on Tuukka Rask.
"He’s one of our special players," said Toronto defenceman Jake Muzzin, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Los Angeles Kings. "He reads the play so well. He’s almost one step ahead, to be honest."
"[Marner’s] an elite player in the league at a young age," Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy added. "He’s always played well against us, always played hard against us."
Marner, who said prior to the game the peach fuzz growing on his face "gets heavier now," not only lead the offensive charge, but along with John Tavares and Zach Hyman, kept Boston’s big line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak — which combined for 30 points against Toronto last spring — in check at 5 on 5.
"We just wanted to stay above them," Marner said. "We wanted to make it hard on them getting to our blue line and getting it in. Muzzy and [defence partner Nikita] Zaitsev did a great job as well."
William Nylander and Tavares, into an empty net, had the other goals for Toronto, which got 37 saves from a calm and collected Frederik Andersen. Tavares assisted on Marner’s first goal.
Bergeron replied for Boston, while Rask stopped 29 shots as the Leafs won a Game 1 for the first time since April 9, 2003, against the Philadelphia Flyers.
"A big road win for us," Toronto centre Auston Matthews said. "We really kept our composure."
Game 2 goes Saturday at TD Garden ahead of the series shifting to Scotiabank Arena on Monday and Wednesday.
"Still six games left here to get the job done," Marchand said. "We have to be better."
Tied 1-1 after 20 minutes and with his team down a man, Marner moved to his forehand on the penalty shot for his second goal of the night at 2:47 of the second after getting brought down on a breakaway by Jake DeBrusk.
"I kind of had an idea of what I wanted to do," said Marner, who scored Toronto’s first penalty shot in the playoffs since Mats Sundin in 1999. "Last second I switched it up just seeing where he was and seeing his position."
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Boston nearly tied it moments later, but Andersen stopped Charlie Coyle before the Bruins centre rang a shot off the post.
Matthews then found iron at the other end, but the visitors went up 3-1 with 1:35 left in the second when Nylander fired between Rask’s pads on another break after taking a terrific tape-to-tape stretch pass from Nazem Kadri.
Boston pushed in the third, but Andersen and the Leafs held their nerve until Tavares iced it into an empty net for Toronto’s first victory in a Game 1 in 5,846 days — when Marner was five years old.
The Bruins went ahead on a power play at 9:31 of the first when Marchand used a subtle delay in the offensive zone before sliding a pass through the seam to Bergeron, who had a wide-open net as the Leafs’ penalty killers were caught puck-watching.
Andersen, who had a save percentage of just .896 in last year’s first round and an .881 mark over his final 10 games of 2018-19, made a big glove stop on Danton Heinen later in the period after Jake Gardiner turned the puck over in front of his own net to set the table for Marner’s equalizer.
Muzzin’s initial point shot was tipped by Marner in the slot before bouncing to the Leafs’ forward, who slapped a shot that found iron a second time and dribbled in at 16:44.
"[Marner’s] just matured," said Kadri, who along with defenceman Gardiner are the only two players still on Toronto’s roster from the team’s epic third-period collapse in Game 7 against Boston back in 2013. "Mitchie’s got that confidence level to pretty much shake anything off, move forward and look to the future."
The Leafs had their doors blown off in the first two games in Boston last spring, getting outscored 12-4 in falling behind 2-0 in the series. Toronto would trail 3-1 heading back to TD Garden, but won two straight to force a Game 7 where they led 4-3 heading into the third before allowing four goals in the third of a 7-4 loss.
There would be no such comeback on this night.
"A great win for us," Marner said. "We’re going to need to keep going here throughout the series.
"The games are just going to get harder and harder."
And there’s little doubt Marner will meet that challenge head-on.