LUCAN, Ont. – You normally can’t count on things falling into place quite so quickly.
Even though Toronto Maple Leafs brass first started envisioning John Tavares and Mitch Marner creating sparks on the ice together several months ago – it was a huge part of the pitch used to land Tavares in free agency – some teammates cautioned that they’d need more than a few days to light the match.
“The offensive talent is just off the charts for them two,” Nazem Kadri said over the weekend. “[But] you can’t expect crazy results off the start. They’ve got to feel each other out, they’ve got to start to understand where each other are going to be.”
As it turns out, Tavares and Marner needed fewer than six minutes in Tuesday’s pre-season opener to connect on a goal. And before a memorable evening inside the intimate Lucan Community Memorial Centre was over, they’d found two more as the Leafs beat the Ottawa Senators 4-1.
It was a dream start for a couple key pistons expected to drive this team’s offensive engine.
Yes, it’s only exhibition. That context is important. Tavares did some of his best work against Pat Sieloff – a 24-year-old defenceman with two NHL games on his resume – and handed minuses to a couple other “Senators” that aren’t truly in the running for jobs on the big team.
But if you’re Leafs coach Mike Babcock, there had to be some comfort in seeing Nos. 91 and 16 confidently finding each other in traffic and controlling the puck down low after only a couple days of scrimmages under their belts.
“Yeah, there’s another guy on the line [too],” Babcock reminded. “His name’s [Zach] Hyman, he keeps getting the puck for them there. Obviously, they had a good night.”
Tavares admitted feeling some jitters before his first game in a Leafs sweater. He hadn’t played since the New York Islanders season finale on April 7 – a night that must feel like a lifetime ago after getting married, choosing to move back to his hometown and cashing a $15.25-million signing bonus in the five months since.
“The first game of the year is always that same type of butterfly excitement,” said Tavares.
There was also the unfamiliar setting of this small community which won the Kraft Hockeyville contest. Tavares posed for selfies and signed autographs on his way into the rink – “Will you sign my arm?!” one young boy yelled as he made his way through the receiving line – and then stepped onto a compressed ice surface that fell short of the NHL’s typical 200 feet in length.
That made the game feel even tighter and more scrambly. There wasn’t much room.
Yet somehow Tavares snuck free of defenders during an early Leafs power play and got sent in alone on goalie Mike Condon thanks to a pass from Marner. He wasted no time in roofing the shot, providing an early strike for a potentially lethal PP1 expected to also include Kadri, Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly once the games count for real.
“I think when you have more than five guys that have the ability that I think that we have, everyone’s dangerous,” said Tavares. “It’s hard to really take all the options away when you’ve got one extra guy and everyone’s multi-dimensional. Being able to make plays or shoot the puck, you now score goals from the perimeter or being able to get on the inside and then find rebounds and crash the net and make plays around the net.”
At 5-on-5, the Hyman-Tavares-Marner trio felt a little off sync early on. Tavares didn’t think he was distributing the puck fast enough and finding Marner when he popped into openings. Those two had a conversation during the second intermission that proved helpful because it left Tavares with the understanding his linemate would be lingering around the top of the offensive zone when he found himself below the goal-line after a solo surge up the ice.
He put a bullet pass on Marner’s stick and it was soon in the net with a ping off the post for good measure.
Marner has had all summer to think about his role on this new line and decided he needs to shoot more often than in the past. What excites him most about playing with Tavares is the fact the centre does such a good job of controlling the puck along the boards and winning battles, which should create plenty of opportunities for him to get open.
“Just his down-low strength, how smart he is with the puck when he gets it down low, how he can make plays out of nothing,” said Marner. “I think just how deceptive he is with the puck as well. I’m excited to have all those things and I look forward to playing with him.”
What we saw Tuesday was only a glimpse of what might be, but it won’t temper the hype machine building around the Leafs.
We’re talking about just one of three potentially dangerous scoring lines and they looked awfully tough to handle. Remember that they’ve also got two weeks of work ahead before the season starts for real at Scotiabank Arena on Oct. 3.
“We know we’re still feeling each other out, still trying to get comfortable,” said Tavares. “I’m still getting used to the system. Just keeping things simple, talking to each other and then just be predictable for one another.
“It’s a small step.”