TORONTO — The elevator operator at Scotiabank Arena swears he’s not a superstitious man.
And yet, as he takes a carload down to event level, as the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ Maxine Nightingale win song blares through the barn, as Mitchell Marner gets smothered in hockey hugs following a clutch shootout winner, the elevator operator tells his guest:
“Well, he’s gotta stick with the fishbowl now, right?”
Through the protective glass, Leaf Nation watched Marner get his magic back Thursday.
His confidence and face bruised, his mind busied, and his centreman switched, Marner had not been his typically dominant self for a stretch of games leading up to this one.
The winger got his groove back in fantastic form, scoring all three Toronto goals and adding a walk-off snipe for good measure, leading the Leafs to a 4-3 non-regulation triumph over the struggling Seattle Kraken.
“Put the team on his back,” said goalie Joseph Woll, following a stellar 37-save performance of his own.
The Leafs would rather Marner carry the team on his back than the weight of the world. Which, judging by the normally buoyant player’s body language and interview tone of late, had been taking a toll.
Despite maintaining a point-per-game pace.
“I haven’t been happy with my own gameplay,” Marner said.
Perhaps the deflected puck that flew off Matthew Tkachuk’s blade and smashed into Marner’s right cheek early in Tuesday’s shootout (of course) win over Florida was a turning point. Or maybe it just makes for layup storytelling.
Either way, a bloodied Marner returned to that game wearing a minor-hockey cage after getting 12 stitches along the jawline and earned grit points for his resilience.
The entire right side of chin went numb, but luckily he was able to clench his teeth.
“Little bit of a scare there, to be honest,” Marner said.
Marner ditched the cage at Thursday’s morning skate. He tested a clear extended chin guard with a half-visor before settling on the full fishbowl. (Hey, he plies his craft in a metaphorical one anyway.)
“The fishbowl just felt the best of all them,” Marner explained. “It’s a little tough to breathe, and the chin guard gets a little soggy sometimes. But it’s still clear vision. Nothing gets in your eyes snow-wise. I thought that was the best option for tonight, and it worked out obviously.”
Added Conor Timmins: “I think that plays a bigger factor than people realize. Those things are pretty uncomfortable and can get fogged up and stuff. So, yeah, kudos to him.”
Reunited with John Tavares and flanked to the left by Tyler Bertuzzi, Marner’s new-look line generated 70.6 per cent of shot attempts and out-chanced the Kraken 6-0 at even-strength.
A slick passing sequence led to an open-look power play strike that got Marner on the board early. He followed that with a one-timer from Auston Matthews 21 seconds into the second period, then beat Philipp Grubauer with a silky breakaway move sprung by a Jake McCabe breakout feed.
“He looks confident to me. Played with authority,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He’s an important guy for us for so many reasons.
“For him to have a breakout game like that, now I suspect he’ll be a lot more relaxed and just go out and play. That’s very positive for him and us.”
The negatives surrounding the Leafs these days are within easy reach: a questionable defence corps thinned by injury; blown leads aplenty; cold spells from top players; inconsistent penalty killing; too many men and too many turnovers.
But on Thursday, Keefe and the Leafs had no interest in detracting from the positives bubbling up after Toronto’s league-leading fourth shootout win.
“It’s a hard league, man,” McCabe said. “Two points is two points.”
But for Marner, these two points were more than that.
It was Hockey Fights Cancer night, and the mother and sister of Hayden Foulon, Marner’s young friend who died of cancer, were in the building, watching hats rain.
“I’ve lost two amazing people that I count as my family that weren’t technically bloodline to cancer. One being my billet dad [Mark Bartlett]; I count the mom [Leah] and the brother and sister as family members. Still see them all the time. They come down to Toronto and stay at our house. And Hayden’s family,” Marner said.
“Two angels looking down at me. It’s pretty special.”
Fox’s Fast Five
• Morgan Rielly ranks sixth league-wide in minutes per game, a figure boosted by his gutsy 30:30 Tuesday night versus Florida.
“It’s been good,” Rielly said. “You always want more ice time. You always want more responsibility. So when that comes, you want to make the most of it and play well and help your team.”
Considering Toronto’s blueline injuries, Rielly’s usage won’t ease up soon.
“He uses his legs so well,” said Kraken coach Dave Hakstol, who once ran the Leafs’ blueline as an assistant.
“That’s a huge component within his game. How well he skates allows him to defend; it allows him to be really effective up ice and ties his entire game together. Extremely competitive guy. You don’t play 30 minutes a night — I don’t care how often it is —without being extremely competitive and mentally strong.”
• Keefe calls the Kraken “one of the best defensive teams in the league.”
Consistency and health have something to do with that.
The Kraken have rolled out the same six defencemen for all 24 of its games. Toronto, by comparison, has used 10 D-men in 21 games.
“Their goaltending hasn’t held up for them, but they’ve done a really good job of limiting chances against. They’re very structured. They play hard. They play quickly,” Keefe said. “Puck hasn’t gone in the net for them to the same degree as it did maybe last year, but you watch them play, and they look very similar.”
• Third-liner Nick Robertson played a minimum of 11:34 in each of his first three games after being recalled from the Marlies.
In the seven games since, he’s cracked the 11-minute mark just once (12:40 in the Nov. 24 overtime loss to Chicago).
Still needs to earn more trust.
• Max Domi looked surprised Thursday morning when a reporter noticed that he’s been wearing a splint on his left pinkie finger off the ice for a couple weeks and plays with it taped up.
“Still attached to my body,” Domi said, downplaying the ailment. “So, we’re doing all right.”
• Gotta give Woll his fourth consecutive start Saturday versus the Atlantic-leading Boston Bruins, don’t you?
With Woll undefeated in overtime and in the shootout, Keefe dubbed him “the backbone” of these extra-time wins.
“It’s a lot of fun when the game’s on the line,” Woll smiles. “The opportunity to step up.”