BOSTON — If you want to count the ways the Toronto Maple Leafs have changed from the team that got pounded in this building 12 months ago, start here: Mitch Marner, swooping across the defensive zone, ready to pounce.
Even while killing a penalty, he was looking for prey.
All it took was the slightest bobble of the puck for Marner to close the gap, swipe it from Jake DeBrusk’s blade and break in alone. DeBrusk chased hard and hauled him down, but Marner left Tuukka Rask guessing wrong on a short-handed penalty shot that swung the entire direction of Game 1 in Toronto’s favour.
“He’s smart, man. He’s just a smart player,” marvelled teammate Jake Muzzin. “He reads the play so well he’s almost one step ahead, to be honest.
“Defensively and offensively.”
It is not so much Marner’s intelligence the Boston Bruins are left adjusting to in the wake of a 4-1 series-opening loss, but how it’s currently being applied.
At this time last year he would have been watching that sequence unfold from the bench since Marner only added penalty-killing duties to his bag of tricks after approaching assistant coach D.J. Smith prior to the season and asking if he could do it.
They started him slow, at first, but here he was in the biggest game of the year leading all Leafs forwards in short-handed ice time.
“You can tell how quick of a learner he is,” said Muzzin. “Picking up reads and having a good stick and defending and stuff like that.”
“It’s got to be a little bit nerve-wracking [for opponents],” observed Nazem Kadri. “He’s a smart player with speed and lots of skill. His anticipation and his reads are pretty elite, so usually when he’s looking another skilled guy in the face he kind of has a sense of where that player’s going to go.”
Marner was also a key cog in Toronto’s successful strategy at 5-on-5, which is why he ended up being called for a first star turn at TD Garden. His line with John Tavares and Zach Hyman got the better end of a matchup with Boston’s feared Patrice Bergeron trio, which has come to be known as the ‘Perfection Line’ in these parts.
They had a few blemishes on Thursday, seeing Marner sweep home the opening goal against them and control 61 per cent of attempts, 78 per cent of shots and 55 per cent of shots in his shared minutes with Bergeron.
When you factor in the nine points Marner had in last spring’s seven-game loss to Boston, it’s no surprise he’s going to be even more of a focal point when Game 2 is played on Saturday.
“Listen, years ago I remember people said of Wayne Gretzky: ‘Why doesn’t anyone hit that guy?’ Well, it’s not that easy,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. “So I think it becomes a containment issue, play him hard, play him honest 1-on-1, obviously if you can be physical against him, great.
“He competed hard for the first goal, he went hard to the net. I think we gifted him [the second one] a little bit by coming in late to our coverage on the shorty but good for him, jumping in there.
“He’s a good player, he’s played well against us and we need to find an answer against him.”
Mike Babcock took a different approach to the Brad Marchand-Bergeron-David Pastrnak line by using Muzzin and Nikita Zaitsev against them on the back end, rather than the Morgan Rielly-Ron Hainsey pairing.
That’s two new pieces Babcock didn’t have at his disposal last spring who showed well in the most critical defensive matchup the Leafs are facing in this best-of-seven. Tavares won nine of his 17 draws against Bergeron, while producing more shots, chances, attempts and expected goals in their head-to-head shifts.
The prized free-agent signing added an empty-net goal for good measure.
Muzzin, an effective cycle-breaker and puck distributor who arrived in a January trade from Los Angeles, provided more than 20 steady minutes in his Leafs playoff debut. He’s started just 36 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone and still saw the team control 56 per cent of shot attempts with him on the ice.
“We’re a different team,” said Marner. “We did some things in the summertime and we’ve got a little more confidence in this room and we’re ready to play with it.”
Most important of all for the Leafs is the fact they managed to attack against Boston’s No. 1 line without getting burned by them at even strength.
It’s a fine line to walk.
“They have so many threats on that line that we need everyone working together taking away options,” said Muzzin. “It’s not just one guy. All three can score, all three can pass. With me and Z and our low forward, I thought we did a good job at getting sticks in lanes, on passes and keeping them to the outside for the most part.”
That left Marner to break things open.
On the penalty shot, he beat Rask with a breath-taking series of dekes — finding a wide open side of the net to deposit the puck after adjusting his move to what the Bruins goaltender showed him.
That gave Toronto a 2-1 lead before the game was 23 minutes old.
“The crowd kind of was deflated a little bit after that,” said Kadri. “We just never looked back.”