“It’s a new year. It’s a new series.” —Auston Matthews
TORONTO – On the morning the 2022 playoffs opened, happy-go-lucky Mitch Marner stood at the podium before of a room busy with media types, many of whom had pointed out his lack of production over the past two post-seasons. Objective failures both.
The fun-loving superstar was wearing a buttoned game face like a transparent visor. He answered a flurry of questions directly but without elaboration or nuance. All business.
Marner described his mood as “excited.” While he said this, he looked excited in the way Keanu Reeves is excited to avenge his dog.
Absolutely the 24-year-old star, much like this entire hardening Toronto Maple Leafs core, has been driven by the pain of the past. What he is striving to do, what he has been working all season, is to not dwell on the history or the haters.
To clear from his mind the agonizing 1,118-day, 18-game, 49-shot drought since his last playoff goal: April 11, 2019, against Boston. A goal that was three lost series and one $65-million contract ago.
Or the fact, heading into Game 1 against the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning, he had as many delay-of-game penalties as he had goals in his 32 career playoff appearances (five).
“Can't think about those,” Marner said. “Gotta be here in the moment. Gotta be ready for what comes tonight.”
What came was overwhelming and relieving, penalty-filled and, in the messy end, downright bloody.
Marner — a top penalty-killer, power-play threat, and hungry minute-muncher — and the Maple Leafs dominated on special teams, defended with determination, and shut down the Lightning to the tune of 5-0.
(So decisive was the victory, the Lightning felt compelled to goon it up late, and the Leafs obliged.)
Coming in hot off his career-best 35-goal regular season, Marner quenched his personal drought with a patient cut to the slot, waiting out an Alexander Kerfoot decoy and zipping the puck through a scrambling Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“Go back to last season. That's the kind of play and the kind of look he got I don't know how many times in the Montreal series — but a lot. And it didn’t go for him. Tonight, it did,” said coach Sheldon Keefe, encouraged by his stars’ splashing of the scoresheet.
“That's really important. I mean, those guys have scored at such a high level all season. It's a new season here now – you want to get rid of the zeros as quickly as you can. So that's another thing tonight that just came up our way.”
Marner added a pair of assists and played a starring role on Toronto’s 5-for-5 penalty kill for good measure.
“He was dialed in,” said goalie Jack Campbell, following his second consecutive shutout.
“I knew it was just a matter of time. I mean, he wants it so bad. He’s such an elite player, and obviously this is the most fun time of the year, and it's most intense.
“Just really happy for him because he's putting in so much hard work and he's done so well for our team. Since I've been here, it's just been fun to watch him grow, and it's a great step in a pretty amazing direction.”
Marner has tried to put on a brave face, but the digital slings and arrows directed at the talented kid from his own hometown fans stung.
He has welcomed the addition of motivational speaker and elite-athlete mental coach Greg Harden as a sounding board.
“When you call him, you can talk to him about anything,” Marner explained recently. "It's been a lot of relief. Everyone's got that kind of [idea], athletes in general, that we can handle anything by ourselves, and it's not true.
“There's a lot of mental health stuff that goes on behind the shades there that some people really hide. For us athletes, it's nothing to be embarrassed about or hide. You want to talk about some stuff. And it's been great to have Greg, for that reason, around.”
Keefe puts the moment Marner is now living simply: “He's been waiting for this opportunity again, like our whole team has.”
As dominant as Game 1 concluded, the Maple Leafs got off to a shaky start.
What could’ve been a devastating blow early turned into a rallying point.
Kyle Clifford took a reckless boarding major (plus a game misconduct) in the first period and granted the Lightning’s frightful power-play five minutes to work their magic.
Alas, their wands were duds, and the Leafs’ swarming shorthanded scheme yielded the defenders better scoring chances. Tampa’s PP couldn’t get set up let alone muster a decent scoring chance 5-on-4.
The Maple Leafs spent seven minutes killing penalties in the first period and still walloped the Lightning in high-danger chances 6-0 in the frame.
So, it was fitting that stay-at-home defenceman Jake Muzzin — battling injuries and doubt and criticism all season long — was first to strike.
His full-wind-up slapper from the point zipped through traffic and past Andrei Vasilevskiy, giving the Leafs a lead they would never relinquish.
Auston Matthews scored twice, doubling his goal output in seven games against Montreal in the 2021 playoffs. And David Kämpf sniped a beauty on a shorthanded breakaway.
The night regressed into fights and misconducts, somewhat predictably, as Toronto put the outcome out of reach. The penalty tally reached 113 minutes as Pat Maroon and Corey Perry drew Toronto in. Colin Blackwelll, Wayne Simmonds and Ilya Lyubushkin all jumped in.
Morgan Rielly pounded on Jan Rutta to the point where the Tampa defenceman’s blood needed scrapping off the ice and Rielly opened up a wound on his playmaking hand. It was Rielly’s first fight since taking on Alex Burrows in 2016.
“The frustration was out of not scoring on the power play,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We’re better than that.”
“Just not backing down,” Matthews said of the rough stuff. “Standing up for one another when it gets chippy like that.”
The Leafs’ best stood up. More important, they scored goals and did not let up.
“Those guys over there are probably extremely motivated because of what happened,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “We've had some failures, too, in the past, and it certainly motivates you.
“You don't want to go through that again. You learn from that.”
Judging by our 60-minute appetizer, Marner and the Maple Leafs have learned something.
Now it’s time for the champs to take notes and respond from this blow.
"It was a good night for us, but it’s one night. Put your head on the pillow tonight and enjoy it. When you wake up tomorrow, it’s done, it’s over,” Keefe said.
“The Tampa Bay Lightning will be a far better team when they come back in here. We’ll have to be better ourselves.”
Fox’s Fast 5
• Keefe spent time with fourth-line wings Clifford and Simmonds discussing their role heading into the series. Then Clifford went out and took an ill-advised boarding major on Ross Colton in the neutral zone on his first shift. He was booted from the game after just 49 seconds of work, leaving the Leafs with a short bench.
“I didn’t like Cliff’s penalty. Cliff’s hit is not a hit you can make there,” Keefe said.
Bet on Jason Spezza (or Michael Bunting?) to make his series debut in Game 2.
• Andrei Vasilevskiy will carry a pristine 14-0 record following a playoff loss into Wednesday’s Game 2. He’ll be better than the .848 he posted Monday.
• Referees Dan O’Rourke and Brian Pochmara seemed set on avoiding any borderline violence, calling 25 minutes’ worth of infractions before the series was 40 minutes old.
“I heard the word ‘violent’ was thrown around earlier today… like, c’mon,” Cooper said. “Maybe that gets in [officials’] ears to keep control of a series that hadn’t started yet.
“But there were dumb penalties taken both ways. Both teams were dumb. It wasn’t their fault. They were calling what was in front of them.”
• Tampa's two healthy scratches, Riley Nash and Zach Bogosian, were both in Toronto's Game 1 playoff lineup last May.
• The Maple Leafs have filled out their black aces: Nick Abruzzese, Joey Anderson, Pontus Holmberg, Dmitry Ovchinnikov, Alex Steeves, Kristians Rubins, Brett Seney, Mac Hollowell, Filip Kral, Nick Robertson, and Michael Hutchinson.