With Marner hurt, Leafs lose ‘heartbeat’ ahead of difficult stretch

Robin Lehner made 53 stops for the Blackhawks as they survived a Maple Leafs rally attempt to get a 5-4 win.

CHICAGO — Maybe they complete this comeback if Mitchell Marner was part of the surge.

That thought had to cross a few minds as the Toronto Maple Leafs walked out of United Center with the mixed emotions of a 57-shot, 5-4 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks still fresh on Sunday night.

The biggest challenge in these next four-plus weeks is not wasting any time waiting for No. 16 to walk back through the door. There will be no replacing Marner during the 12 additional games (at minimum) he misses while recovering from a right ankle sprain — nine of which come on the road.

Marner is the team’s top playmaker, its top penalty-killing forward, its primary distributor on the top power-play unit and the most creative player on last season’s best forward line at 5-on-5. He’s also been described by multiple teammates as the heartbeat of the dressing room.

The pulse of a group is bound to change when you remove all of those elements in the time it took for Marner to step on an opponent’s stick and fall awkwardly to the ice.

“There’s no question, Mitch is a huge part of our team, a huge part of our success,” said captain John Tavares. “So, opportunity for guys to step up. I’m not expecting anybody to be Mitch, but as a group, we’ve got a lot of depth, a lot of talent to do the job we need to do.”

They didn’t have quite enough while playing their first game without Marner since February 2017.

The Leafs got off to an ugly start here in Chicago and drowned in a sea of turnovers. They also weren’t bailed out with a big save from backup Michael Hutchinson, who dropped to 0-4-1 while failing to remove the questions about his ability to handle the difficult assignments he’s been tasked with — starting exclusively on the second half of back-to-backs.

It was 3-0 before the 13-minute mark as Patrick Kane twisted the Chelsea Dagger. He and linemates Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome combined for eight points in the opening 20 minutes alone.

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“It’s obviously been a bit of a problem for us this year is these back-to-backs have been killing us, especially that first period,” said Auston Matthews. “We’ve just been finding ourselves in a hole early and been having to crawl out of it.”

They mounted a monumental push from that point forward. The Leafs directed 42 shots at Robin Lehner in the final two periods thanks in large part to a dominant showing from Matthews, William Nylander and Andreas Johnsson — the only trio kept intact from start to finish.

They logged more than 12 minutes at even strength together.

As for the rest?

The blender was out, especially in Marner’s usual spot on the right side of Tavares. Kasperi Kapanen and Alexander Kerfoot both saw some time there. It was mix and match for the bottom three forward groups, and none of them gained much traction.

“We had a different line for each period,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock said.

The play of the Matthews line stands out as one positive for a team coming to grips with the loss of another top player. Matthews had a career-best 10 shots on goal and four assists against the Blackhawks — building on his two-assist performance in Saturday’s shootout loss to Philadelphia.

He’s now sixth overall in the NHL points race with 25.

Nylander scored twice against Lehner after getting one against the Flyers, which suddenly puts him second on the team with seven goals. That’s the same number he managed last season, but in 35 additional games.

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“He’s hitting the net. That’s always a start,” Matthews said when asked about what’s changed for Nylander. “He’s got a great shot — a really nice release. Obviously, he can make plays, he can pass the puck, but he’s got a really underrated shot.”

Nylander was also bumped up to Marner’s spot on the top power-play unit. Trevor Moore and Ilya Mikheyev saw the biggest jump in their penalty killing duties against Chicago with Marner back home in Toronto undergoing an MRI on his injured ankle.

The Leafs have yet to play a game at full health this season and were days away from doing so with Zach Hyman set to return from off-season knee surgery this week. Then Marner went down against Philadelphia.

Hyman will probably step into his usual spot beside Tavares while also joining the No. 1 PK unit when he returns Wednesday on Long Island, although Babcock cautioned he’s “probably not going to be the Hyman we all know, reasonably speaking,” because of his long injury layoff.

A group still searching for its best self is going to have to get the job done by committee while Marner recovers. His injury delays the impending salary cap crunch the organization was facing because he can be placed on long-term injured reserve, but that won’t ease the pain entirely while navigating a tough stretch of schedule without him.

The Leafs have travelled a bumpy road to their 9-6-4 record so far and need to dig deep while their heartbeat is sidelined for the next month.

“He’s a big part of this team. He plays some key roles — special teams, 5-on-5 — he’s a special player,” Matthews said of Marner. “He’s gonna be missed obviously, but those things happen. We gotta move on without him.”

Much easier said than done.

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