When he’s not conjuring goals out of phone booths, he’s playing video games or mini sticks, stirring his ice cream into soup, or singing “YMCA” from the passenger seat. By his own admission, Marner likes to keep things light.
So, it was a little arresting and a lot impressive that after the club’s leakiest defensive effort in a half-decade, Marner was the stern voice calling out the group, demanding better.
“We need to wake up here,” said Marner, visibly angry after getting walloped 8-4 by the Florida Panthers on Sunday.
“Forcing stuff in the middle but no F3, we’ve got guys diving in, we’ve got people leaving our goalies out to dry. It’s been too many games now. It’s unfair to a guy (Frederik Andersen) that’s been with us for the last four years. He’s been our backbone for the whole time.”
Panthers coach Joel Quenneville used the phrase “must win” and made good.
After the ugliest showing of his brief tenure, Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe might prefer the term “must learn.”
“A good slap in the face and a good reminder of how we can’t play if we have any intention at all of being a successful team,” Keefe lamented. “A big step backwards for us here today, defensively.”
After dropping consecutive games last week to the Oilers and Jets, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed autographs and posed for selfies during a loose, 3-on-3 outdoor shinny practice Thursday in downtown Toronto. They then flew to Florida on Friday to soak up some sunshine and unwind during a rare break in a compacted schedule.
Some bonus downtime was supposed to produce a fast, refreshed group.
Instead, the way they performed Sunday at BB&T Center — against a divisional rival nipping at their heels, no less — the flocks of silent snowbirds in attendance couldn’t help but wonder if the Leafs still had their flip-flops on.
The Panthers chased starter Andersen for the second time in three starts and dished the Leafs their most severe loss in the Keefe era.
Toronto has now lost six straight in this mall-side rink, and the Cats have crawled within a point of the Leafs in the standings. After winning 15 of 20, Keefe’s Leafs have dived into their first three-game skid, giving up a horrendous 17 goals during that span.
Stop to tan in the NHL, and you’ll get burned.
“You’ve got to say it’s the biggest game we’ve had to date,” said Quenneville, who called upon seldom-used backup Chris Driedger for the task.
“Hey, we gotta take care of our own business. These are teams that we gotta look to close the gap on. This is one of those that is a very pivotal four-point game for us in the standings.”
The Leafs, at least in their own zone, showed no such urgency, giving up two goals in under four minutes, surrendering a short-handed strike by Frank Vatrano, and finding themselves trailing 5-0 before Zach Hyman finally solved Driedger, who has 75 ECHL games on his resume and only 11 in the NHL.
Hyman — a plus-two and far and away the hardest-working Leaf on the night — called the rout “a big learning experience.”
Sure, the Leafs tacked on a few goals late, but when you allow six on the first 14 shots, well, even a team that can start a line of Matthews-Tavares-Marner, as Keefe did Sunday, can’t score its way out of such a cavern.
“Teams obviously see the way we play and are going to look to counter and quick-strike us like they have,” John Tavares said. “As much as we’re going to have [the puck] a lot and we’re going to be dynamic, we’ve got to realize, especially against a team like this that has some players that can really hurt you and are really talented, just giving up odd-man rushes is not a recipe for success.”
The scorching-hot Jonathan Huberdeau notched a goal and an assist in the rout, giving him 420 career points. He surpassed Olli Jokinen as the Panthers all-time franchise scoring leader and was given a video tribute (and standing ovation) midway through the third period.
The All-Star Game–bound Andersen gave up four on 12 shots has posted a save percentage above .893 only twice in his past eight starts.
Andersen said he “wasn’t good enough” Sunday but that physically he’s feeling OK.
“I don’t think fatigue is the issue,” Keefe said. “In fact, when his workload was heavier, he was playing better. His numbers were better. So maybe it’s something the other way, perhaps. So we’ve got to look here to get him in a better rhythm and get him going.”
The defence in front of Andersen allowed the type and frequency of odd-man rushes that should be a growing concern, and the likes of Aleksander Barkov to dance in the slot untouched.
“Right off the start of the bat, we’re giving their best players walk-ins to the net and it’s unacceptable,” Marner said. “Seemed like every guy that had a 2-on-1 had a gun of a shot or a hell of a vision to make a play.”
The Maple Leafs’ thin defence core — the club traveled to Florida without an extra — is floundering to keep its collective head above water as Jake Muzzin hobbles around with his broken foot in a boot.
“When you don’t pull out wins, that’s where your brain goes — what you’re missing,” Morgan Rielly said. “Obviously, we want him back and he’s a big part of our team, so hopefully he gets back soon.”
And when Rielly temporarily left the game due to a close-range Barkov blast that thwacked his left foot, it made one shudder about the ripple effect of another blueline injury. (Keefe said post-game he believed Rielly was fine.)
If the Leafs are to survive the postseason gauntlet, defensive depth must be addressed by the trade deadline.
Toronto next draws the New Jersey Devils at home Tuesday.
Andersen will start.
Hopefully the guys in front of him do as well.