For three winters now, pass-first Mitchell Marner has vowed to adopt a shooter’s brain, knowing full well that becoming a double threat would keep goalies guessing and the Toronto Maple Leafs winning.
“You’ve got to respect both the shot and the pass option,” goaltender Frederik Andersen explains. “The better you can be at both, the more it’s going to help you.”
Sounds simple enough.
But on a night when your team has coughed up 2-0 and 3-1 leads on the road, when the game is tied, and the tide has violently turned, and your centreman plants one on your tape with under eight minutes left… you still gotta bury the sucker.
Which is precisely what Marner did Tuesday in Calgary.
He drifted into a quiet space in the high slot to receive a planned pass from Auston Matthews, pounded a one-timer past Jacob Markstrom, and delivered Toronto its sixth nail-biting victory in eight games.
“I've really been working on that shot with Matts. If I can try to find that shot more, I know Matts can find me there,” said Marner.
For years now, Auston Matthews and Marner have routinely been the final two Leafs to glide off the ice during pre-game skate, using every last second of warm-up to feed each other one-timers until the buzzer sounds, the lights dim, and the music stops.
“It's just trying to get it off my stick quickly and on to the net, for a chance on net, for a rebound or something,” Marner said. “I'm trying to get more of a shot mentality in there, trying to be more of a threat. It was a great dish by Matty, and that's a big goal.”
Marner’s strike completed an four-point bounce up the North Division standings in favour of the Leafs over the Flames in the rivals’ first two-game miniseries.
Marner’s fifth multi-point effort and second game-winner also vaulted the winger into a tie with Connor McDavid for the NHL points lead with 12. And, more surprisingly, a tie with Max Pacioretty for the NHL lead in even-strength goals with five.
Critics may be quick to point out that Marner has a league-high two empty-netters or that his 31.3 per cent shooting percentage is unsustainable. Fair.
But there is little doubt Marner has embarked on a mission to make his impact, with or without the puck, felt after a disappointing experience in the 2020 post-season bubble.
“A real differentiator for the true great players, the truly elite players of the league: they're not satisfied,” coach Sheldon Keefe said.
“When you see Mitch Marner, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, William Nylander out on the ice every day, practising and working on different things and spending their off-season trying to add different layers to the game, if you're a player that is not at their level, there’s no excuses.”
Instrumental to both the Leafs’ top power-play and penalty-kill units, Marner has seen his average ice time climb to 23:33, tops among all NHL forwards.
The perfect cross-seam pass Marner mailed with pep to Matthews for a power-play beauty earlier in the contest? That's to be expected. It's the inverse of that connection that feels fresher.
In effort to convert his muffin to a missile, Marner has bulked up his body and stiffened his stick flex from 75 to 85. He’s also tried to rethink his options when he gets within striking distance.
“The last two years I've been trying to work on it. I feel like it's a mentality thing,” Marner said. “I feel like I really want to try and make an extra play most of the time, but this year around, trying to be more of a threat. More of a guy that can be a more consistent shooter on net, kind of change things up on goalies -- and that's what I did tonight.”
Andersen faces Marner’s shot daily in practice and believes it’s an “underrated” weapon, noting that placement can trump power.
“He’s good at picking spots and being pretty elusive and tricky about where he’s going to go,” Andersen said. “He wants to be more than an incredible passer and playmaker. I know he wants to add to his game, and I think he’s done that throughout the years I’ve played with him.”
Much of the juicy morning chatter around the Leafs’ 4-3 win will be about Jake Muzzin flipping the game puck into Matthew Tkachuk’s logo at the buzzer and Tkachuk blowing a gasket in response to the unwelcome souvenir.
But Muzzin’s take-that gesture would not have been possible had the Maple Leafs not received contributions from their bottom six -- taxi-squad graduate Travis Boyd notched his first as a Leaf, and Wayne Simmonds is now running a two-game goal train -- or a double dose of the Matthews-Marner connection.
Toronto's core stars are coming through when it counts. Consider all six of their game-winning goal scorers so far: Marner (2), Matthews (2), Tavares (1), and Morgan Rielly (1).
“It just looks like he's flying,” Rielly says of Marner. “I know he's pretty motivated, and he's in a good place right now. He's just having fun with it, and it's great to be around him at the rink when he's feeling like that.”
New Leafs T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian have both had their eyes opened by Marner’s elite ability to make reads and contribute defensively.
“So, he’s the total package,” Bogosian says.
Even higher praise for Marner came from club president Brendan Shanahan when addressing Toronto's season-ticket holders in a Leafs Nation Network interview earlier this month.
“He's got an energy that the players all love. He laughs at himself. He's self-deprecating, but he's also very serious about his job and the pressure that he puts on himself," Shanahan said.
“He just cares. He cares a lot. This is a guy that I hope plays his entire career in Toronto. And if he does, I have no doubt he will bring us success. And I have no doubt that he's going to have a statue outside of the arena one day.”