Balmy weather, five-star restaurants, ocean views…
A group of five Toronto Maple Leafs — Mitch Marner, Petr Mrazek, Justin Holl, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren — and their significant others jetted down to South Florida to take hockey off their minds during the all-star break.
“Just a lot of laughing and a lot of fun—that’s what we did in Miami,” Marner said.
Yet when they flew back to Toronto for Monday’s showdown against the top-ranked Carolina Hurricanes, they knew it would be no day at the beach.
“Not the easiest team to play coming back from a break,” Morgan Rielly said.
In fact, save for a lack of fans, this clash of regular-season titans had plenty of playoff-like features: a fight, some spirited chirping between benches, tooth-and-nail puck battles, bumps and bruises, dialled-in goalies, and snappy forechecks.
“Two teams that were all-in on competing tonight,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “They close on you quickly. The pace is really high both ways.”
A 4-3 come-from-behind overtime thriller that delivered both a jolt of excitement and a shiver of concern for fans of the home team.
Marner is going streaking
Has Marner ever found himself gripping a hotter stick? Certainly not as a pro. But when he was pumping 44 for the London Knights maybe?
“I have no idea,” Marner said. “I’m sure my dad knows, but I have no idea, to be honest.”
Pigeonholed as a pass-first star, Marner scored both the game-tying goal and the OT winner to crank his goal streak to eight games — the longest run of his career and the longest in the league this season.
To find a longer goal streak by a Leaf, you’d need to flip back to World War II.
To find a longer streak in the NHL, you’re looking at late-‘90s, when Hall of Famers Jaromir Jagr (11 games) and Teemu Selanne (nine) achieved the feat.
“Obviously, it feels real good,” said Marner, who’s made a conscious effort to think less and drive the slot more.
“The difference really is, I’m not just focusing on clean shots. I’m not afraid to just whack one, get it toward the net and surprise them.”
Grip it and rip it.
“Not overthinking the shot is such a big thing for goal scorers,” Keefe said. “Of late, that’s a big thing for Mitch – he’s just letting it go.
“Velocity and overpowering goalies is not the only way to score goals. So, Mitch has found that groove nicely here.”
“He’s been flyin’ around,” Morgan Rielly said.
Since emerging from a video-game quarantine in mid-January, Marner has stacked 10 goals and 19 points in eight games.
“I’m sure the trip that we got helped him,” Petr Mrazek smiled.
Marner credits all the people in his corner for keeping his mind on the enjoyment of the game.
“When I did get back, I wanted to turn my mindset into being more of a shooter,” he said. "I've been saying here for a while that I know I can score goals; it's just believing in it. It's come true recently. I just gotta make sure I just keep going with it."
Leafs Nation holds collective breath for Matthews
Scary moment in the dying seconds of regulation as Auston Matthews got tied up with Nino Niederreiter in a positional battle off the rush and accidentally got clipped in the head by Brett Pesce’s knee as he fell to the ice.
Following the blow, Matthews needed some time before getting to his feet and skating off to concussion protocol.
“Obviously that’s not anything you want to see,” Rielly said. “But he’s our guy, and hopefully he’s OK.”
Keefe had no immediate update on his No. 1 centre’s condition, saying he needed time to be assessed.
Matthews will not practice with the group Tuesday, but he had already been given the day off since rushing back from All-Star weekend.
Matthews had been a threat all night, scoring the Leafs’ first two goals, going 57 per cent in the face-off dot, and ripping a game-high seven shots.
Though the injury unsettled the bench just minutes before overtime, Keefe said, “Our guys kept their focus and just kept playing.”
Freddy’s revenge… denied
Not only was Monday’s matchup a measuring stick for two of the league’s top four teams (by points percentage), it was a rare double-revenge game for the goalies.
Unable to consummate a trade for Frederik Andersen and Mrazek, the Leafs and Canes simply signed the other guys’ free agent last summer.
With Keefe opting to give his All-Star, Jack Campbell, rest until Thursday in Calgary, and All-Star Andersen keen to steal two points at Scotiabank Arena dressed in red, there was plenty of personal incentive in the pipes.
As was the case when Zach Hyman returned to Toronto last month, unfortunately only a limited crowd was on hand for Andersen’s thank-you ovation.
"Looking back, it feels like yesterday getting into Toronto,” said Andersen, a hardworking Leaf for five years. “It reminds you that you have to take it all in and enjoy the process."
Andersen, who was razor-sharp early, gave up a scrambly power-play goal and a beautiful one-timer to close friend and pandemic roommate Matthews in the second frame. Then got beat twice late by good pal Marner.
At the other end, Mrazek was up to the task against his former club as well, stoning Sebastian Aho on a breakaway and battling through the tips and traffic Carolina threw his way.
"He's competitive. That's why we loved him. He's a gamer,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “You put him in there, he's going to give you all he has.”
Leafs captain John Tavares agrees: “He just keeps fighting. He never says die to any puck, no matter how difficult it may be.”
After a delayed and disastrous start to his time in Toronto, Mrazek has now reeled off four consecutive wins, earning the confidence of his teammates and his coach.
“He’s in a great place now,” Keefe said.
Mrazek says he’s poured in some extra work with goalie coach Steve Briere and can feel himself improving with each start he’s given.
“I’m happy with the way things have progressed,” Mrazek said.
Tavares line struggling at even-strength
In a sidebar story not yet worthy of headline status, Toronto’s second line of Tavares, William Nylander and Alexander Kerfoot has hit a small skid 5-on-5.
Because that trio is still thriving on special teams and the top line is soaring, their production dip is not yet cause for alarm. But the coach has noticed.
“Offensively, they need to be a little bit more direct,” Keefe said.
On Monday, that group was outchanced 8-4 and outscored 2-0 at even-strength.
Over their past 11 games, Tavares is a minus-10 and Nylander is a minus-8.
Kerfoot agrees with Keefe’s assessment, saying they can be guilty of trying to do too much with the puck and not putting their opponent under enough pressure when they don’t have it.
“It’s about being on the puck every night,” Kerfoot said. “Competing.”
More caution with Muzzin
Jake Muzzin missed his seventh consecutive game and will extend his break from game action to at least three and a half weeks.
Despite practising in a regular sweater Sunday and saying he was feeling good, Muzzin and the club are smartly exercising caution.
Muzzin said he did suffer a concussion about 10 years ago, but that one only kept him out a week.
“Head injuries are a little finicky sometimes, so it's been challenging,” Muzzin said. “But it's part of the game, part of playing a physical sport, so hopefully it's the last one and I'm clear from here on out."
Prior to the injury, the Leafs’ best defender had some unusually rough stretches in his own end.
“Sometimes that's the way she goes,” GM Kyle Dubas explained. “I've known him for a long time. I remember when he first started in the Soo, it wasn't always pretty.
“The one thing about Jake Muzzin is that especially when I think people start to count him out, or people think that he looks like he's starting to fade, he's very competitive, and he has a lot of pride, and he's able to find his way back.
“This injury, it's unfortunate, and it's a concussion. So, it's very serious,” said Dubas, finding a silver lining. “This type of time off and getting himself healthy and then really resetting himself on the ice, I think you'll see him come back and be back to what we all expect, in the form that he's capable of.”