Marner sets the tone again for Maple Leafs in smothering victory over Penguins

Mitch Marner extended his point streak to 16 games as he scored and assisted for two points in the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-1 victory vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins.

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins picked the wrong guy to gift a glorious chance less than a minute into their game with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday. Because the way he’s been going lately, Mitch Marner wasn’t going to miss this one.

Marner wasn’t the only Leafs star to pepper the scoresheet at PPG Paints Arena — Auston Matthews had a goal and two helpers — but, in what’s become a familiar refrain, it was the puck-hounding right winger who once again set the tone for the Blue and White as the Leafs racked up their third straight victory — all on the road — by smothering the Penguins 4-1.

Marner now has a 16-game point streak to match his jersey number and we sure didn’t have to wait long to see if the heater would continue. With Penguins’ starting five shuffling off the ice in what could possibly have been the world’s worst line change, Matthews picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone and whipped it up to his teammate. Marner swooped in alone on Casey DeSmith and made a power move to his forehand, burying the puck past the Penguins goalie on the glove-hand side.

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“I was kind of looking at their bench — I was going through my change as well — saw it went to Auston quickly,” Marner said. “I thought I could maybe hit a hole and he made a little great little seam pass to me and hit me in stride and I was lucky enough to finish it off.”

Sure, good fortune had a little to do with this specific play. Heck, Sidney Crosby — who was as guilty as any Pittsburgh player on the ice of making a lazy change — was apparently so frustrated by the collective brain cramp that he began booting the boards on the bench while Marner and the Buds celebrated.

On the whole, though, this run by Marner has been about guy who can do it all hitting his groove. This was the second time in as many days that he staked his team to an early advantage after scoring 3:42 into the win versus the Minnesota Wild Friday. In all, Marner has five goals and 17 assists for 22 points during his hot stretch and, should the streak extend through the final game of this roadie in Detroit on Monday and at home on Wednesday versus the San Jose Sharks, he’ll match the franchise record of 18 shared by Darryl Sittler and Ed Olczyk.

“He just had too much time all alone with a goalie to not make a nice move,” Matthews said of the goal. “And he obviously did. He’s been playing great for us. He’s been leading the charge. He’s playing incredible. Both sides of the puck, too.”

For all Marner and his teammates are doing to keep pucks out of their net, they also continue to be on the right side of video reviews. On Wednesday in New Jersey, three plays that involved pucks going into the Toronto net were reviewed and never went on the board as goals.

Against Pittsburgh, referee Kelly Sutherland had to go to the headset again in the second period to get a closer look at a play that saw Penguins forward Rickard Rakell poke a puck that snuck through Erik Kallgren and lay motionless just behind the Leafs goalie in the blue paint. After review, the no-goal ruling on the ice stood — it was deemed a dead puck — giving conspiracy theorists everywhere more ammunition for the case that a higher power is watching out for hockey’s most watched team.

Though a Pittsburgh score would have tied the game 1-1 at that moment, the Leafs actually enjoyed a 24-6 shot advantage as the game tipped toward its midway point. Sure enough, the goals started following. First, Marner stripped the puck from Kris Letang after the Penguins defenceman had a little bobble in the corner and sent a pass to the neutral zone, right onto the stick of a hard-charging Pontus Holmberg. The 23-year-old wasted no time ripping a shot over DeSmith’s glove.

Less than a minute later, Matthews was winning a battle behind the Penguins’ net with Rakell and centering to William Nylander for a one-timer the right winger wasn’t going to miss. In the span of 55 seconds, a pair of Swedes scored similar goals that sent the Leafs on their way.

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“Guys just continued to play the way they have been and I thought even maybe took it up a notch in terms of foot races and winning puck battles and how we broke out of our zone really well, which I thought was a real key to the game and has been for a while now,” Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said. “I thought we did that as good as we have [all year].”

For Holmberg, the snipe represented his second in three games as the rookie continues to look like he belongs in the big league. “He’s done great,” Marner said of the guy with eight career NHL games. “Just defensively, he seems like he’s always above his check, seems annoying out there, to be honest. He’s above people, he’s in pockets, he’s getting skin on people. He’s done a great job of finding little holes in the D zone to get the puck in his hands and make plays and he’s done a great job just, overall, finding soft spots in the O zone as well.”

It sounds like Holmberg is finding his spot in the dressing room, as well. “We’ve got a lot of Swedes on this team, so everyone’s pretty much [from] Canada, USA and Sweden in here,” Marner said with a chuckle. “It’s a lot of fun and we all have a lot of fun with each other.”

The Leafs were certainly all smiles by the time Matthews scored the dagger with 5:24 to go in the game after Pittsburgh had climbed to within two goals earlier in the third. And while Holmberg is an emerging bright spot up front, it’s hard to overstate what everyone — defencemen and forwards, included — is doing to lock things down in the absence of some major players on the back end in Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie and Jake Muzzin.

“Obviously we’re missing very big parts of our team right now, especially on D core,” said blue-liner Rasmus Sandin, who led all Leafs with 22:59 of ice. “It means the rest of the guys need to step up and fill those very big shoes. And I think the defence has done pretty good job and got lots of help from forwards and I think we’ve been playing good as a team.

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