And while Auston Matthews scored the decisive marker in the Game 3 contest that restored hope in Toronto — a 4-2 win over the Bruins at Air Canada Centre — Mitch Marner continues to show he’s going to be absolutely integral to any plans this team has for the spring.
On a night his unit was tasked with going head-to-head versus Boston’s big line of Patrice Bergeron between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, Marner was his usual playmaking, puck-tracking self. Skating beside his third centre in as many games — Nazem Kadri in the opener, Patrick Marleau in Game 2 and Tomas Plekanec on Monday — Marner came through with a pair of helpers on goals deposited by left-winger Marleau.
The first one put Toronto 2-1 up, 3:49 into the middle frame and came just 43 seconds after the Bruins had pulled even. Demonstrating precisely what the team knew it had to do to crawl back in the series — namely, use its wicked-fast speed — Marner blasted up the right side of the ice and took a hard feed from defenceman Morgan Rielly that squeezed between the skates of Bruins defenceman Kevan Miller before it was settled by No. 16’s blade.
With Torey Krug pestering a streaking Marleau, Marner laid a perfect cross-crease pass to his teammate, allowing Marleau to tap the puck home. Behind the Bruins goal, Marner pumped his hands a couple times, let out a serious scream and jumped into Marleau’s arms.
“We wanted to make sure we were playing the game at our pace, playing the game fast,” Marner said. “I think that’s what we kind of got away from the first two games.”
That may be true, but Marner was one of the few Leafs who actually asserted himself quite well in Boston. He came home with a goal and an assist after two games, meaning — after his two-apple night in Game 3 — his four points are tied for the team scoring lead with Rielly.
“He’s just playing great,” said Rielly. “He’s just being himself, he’s passing the puck. Him and [Marleau] have great chemistry.”
Stellar showings have been a theme with Marner for months now. After an up-and-down start to the season he was the most productive Maple Leaf in the second half of the year, netting 49 points in his final 48 games. “I’ve been so impressed with him since Day 1 that I got here,” said Plekanec, who was acquired on Feb. 26 at the trade deadline. “Obviously I knew him, playing against him, but he’s been one of our best players since I got here.”
Beyond the offence, Marner is also a puck-hounding presence who can do a marvelous job of keeping the rubber on Leaf tape. On one of his final shifts in Game 3, Marner picked off a Bruins clearing attempt just inside the Boston blue-line, a play that led to Toronto getting another chance on Tuukka Rask and — more importantly — stopped the Bruins from escaping their zone and marching toward the Leafs’ end of the ice.
This from a 20-year-old who, it bears repeating, spent the night nose-to-nose with a Bergeron-led Boston trio that’s the top-line standard for the entire league. “He was buzzing all over the ice, controlling the play when he was out there, making good plays and expending possessions for us,” said Leafs left winger James van Riemsdyk.
From the moment the lottery balls fell Toronto’s way and Matthews fell in its lap, this club was always going to be defined by what ‘Papi’ could produce. His first playoff goal of 2018 was a laser and a reminder of what a special talent he is.
“I don’t know how many other guys can shoot a puck like that,” Marner said.
It’s true. But to do this thing they’re trying to do against the Bruins, to find a way to come back against such a formidable opponent when you already had one skate in the grave, an awakening by the franchise player might not be enough on its own.
And, thanks to the way Marner is playing, it won’t have to be.