TORONTO – The God-awful start, the spotty defence, the collision with the division’s 2017 All-Star Game captain goaltender, the 40 minutes worth of penalties and 15 giveaways… Mitch Marner did everything in his might to overturn it all and swing the game Toronto’s way.
A performance like the one displayed Saturday night by Toronto’s other Calder candidate—seriously: don’t rule Marner out of the race with so much track left—can make it fun to go downtown on a minus-10 winter’s eve and watch the home side lose, to the Habs, again. For the 13th consecutive time.
’Twas the second night of another Leafs back-to-back. The Leafs looked sloppy off the opening draw. Unfocused, (overworked?) goaltender Frederik Andersen allowed a goal 20 seconds in and two goals on the first three shots he faced. Then he remained in to allow three more, underscoring Toronto’s need for a backup its coach can trust.
The bench thinned, and Marner thrived — engineering the “3” in Toronto’s 5-3 defeat to the Atlantic Division pacesetters.
Two of the 19-year-old’s three assists (all primary) were of the did-you-just-see-that variety. He led the club with four takeaways, snapped four shots on Carey Price himself, and led his club with 28 shifts.
Marner now leads all NHL rookies and all Leafs in assists (22), all Leafs in multi-point nights (10) and three-points outings (four). The kid’s what those in the business might call a game-breaker.
Now, with 32 points, the Thornhill, Ont., native has drawn within three of pal Auston Matthews in the freshman scoring race. The debate should not be “Will the Leafs send Matthews to the all-star game?” it should be, “How much can the Leafs save on Los Angeles hotel fees if Matthews and Marner room together?”
Though he’s threatening a 70-point season, it’s art, not math, which makes Marner great.
First, he poured gasoline on the Leafs’ blazing power play by one-touching a blind, backhanded pass to a streaking Tyler Bozak in the slot, taking some guy named Shea Weber along for the ride. You may have already seen this on your favourite highlight show:
Marner said he didn’t need to peek to know Bozak would be flying up the middle.
“Lucky enough, it bounced the right way off my stick and landed on his,” said Marner. Aw, shucks.
“It’s just chemistry. In London, we [Marner, Matthew Tkachuk and Christian Dvorak] were doing plays like that all the time. We knew where each other was going to be. That’s what it was like again tonight.”
Nazem Kadri banged in a rebound off a Marner power-play shot to knot the game 2-2 in the second frame, igniting the biggest crowd for an indoor Leafs game this season, but the Habs rebuilt their two-goal lead by committee.
When Gauthier got tossed for fighting, Babcock leaned on Marner to kill penalties for the first time, as well as to generate offence on them.
“We had no penalty killers, so somebody had to go. I saw him penalty kill in junior a ton. Threw him out there. He’s got a good nose and good jump and good stick,” Babcock sais.
“Mitch was real good. He was skating and jumping.”
Also jumping: Zach Hyman, who flew over Price, the fan-picked all-star of the division, when he cut fast to the crease and got bumped by Alexei Emelin. Price’s helmet flew off, and Weber and Phillip Danault pounced on Hyman while he was down on the ice.
Hyman would get whistled for a questionable goalie interference play and rough it up again with Weber after the second-period’s buzzer sounded.
“It happens fast. The ref made a call on it. It’s hockey,” Hyman explained. “I’d rather [Weber engage me face-to-face] than punch me in the back of the head when I’m down. I have no problem with him coming after me after that, but I’d rather not get punched in the head there.”
Still chasing the game, Marner circled the Habs zone to set up a gift for James van Riemsdyk smack in the crease. Yet even with the kind of playmaking exhibition that once made Babcock say, “I’ve never coached a kid that young that good,” needing five goals on Price to earn a point is too tall an order.
Marner looked too wonderfully naive to know that.
“I watched Marner play with Max [Domi] for two years in London, so I know what he’s capable of,” Leafs alum Tie Domi said.
“The puck follows him around. He’s got eyes in the back of his head, always looking. You just hope he doesn’t let his guard down, especially in the second half. Second half, every game is like a playoff game. Teams in your conference try to hurt you, so you have to be aware.”
Oh, Marner’s awareness is improving all right. Just as opponents are becoming more aware of him at both ends of the ice, and — now — on both special teams.
As the microphones huddled him at the end of his three-assist night, Marner made one last pass, saucing all the praise to his linemates.
“Guys I play with—they get open for me and get me the puck and find space for me, so big credit goes to all them. Me, Bozie and JVR were doing a lot of give-and-go’s tonight and creating space for all of us,” Marner said.
“It’s things like that that’ll get you two points.”
Or, worst case, leave us entertained.