BOSTON—A swing-from-the-heels slapper. A deke-deke-deke penalty shot.
Mitch Marner 2, Boston Bruins 1.
As if Marner had broken through a wormhole of time, picking up where he’d left off a year ago, as the shiniest of Maple Leafs in Playoffs ’18: The Prequel. A seven-game first-round loss, sure, but also a To Be Continued …
It was Marner, who had a jewel of a regular season — which he now brushes off as insignificant, objective-wise — cranking Toronto’s mojo on Thursday night, at first with a wildly inelegant goal from an acute angle that banged off both posts before dribbling in behind Tuukka Rask. That brought the Leafs even at 1-1 with under four minutes left in the opening period.
Not a thing of beauty, but it took some of the stuffing out of Boston, a team which may have freeze-framed the Leafs from their encounter of Game 1 yore, or their head-to-head domination in the 2018-19 campaign. Though it was apparent early that there would be no one-way mastery — and muscling — in this Groundhog Day rematch, first-round opener.
So, an abnormally twitchy TD Garden crowd, after weeks of being fed a daily media fare of Toronto’s late-season decline and scratchy play down the stretch. Presented instead with an outfit of extraordinary speed and flash and, by their own metrics, hard-nosed bona fides too. Goodness, when little fourth-line rookie Trevor Moore gets in the face of Zdeno Chara — which one might have thought would have been physically impossible, given that the Bruins captain stands seven feet tall in his skates — then yeah, and wow, the Leafs do have some lead in their pencil.
Just like they’d said all along. Their own kind of toughness. Stylin’ and skillin’ the bejeezus out of the B’s.
Slick was the deftness of Marner, out there killing a high-sticking penalty to Kasperi Kapanen, when he intercepted — pounced upon — a lousy pass by a flatfooted Jake DeBrusk just inside the Toronto blue line, flipping the puck toward centre ice, and whoosh, flying toward the Boston net on a clear breakaway. Within less than a foot of the paint when DeBrusk caught up and desperation-dragged him down.
Playoff penalty shot, oh my, and nobody could carp about it either.
Marner, a right-handed shot, picked up the puck at centre and barrelled straight down left-side Main Street, gathering a head of steam and speed. Triple head-dekes left Rask pitifully jangled before Marner, backhand-to-forehand, beat him clean ’round the left leg and easy-peasy into the back of the net. Technically, a short-handed goal.
“I kind of had an idea of what I wanted to do,” first-star Marner explained afterwards. “Last second I switched it up. Just kind of seeing where he was and seeing his position. From there on I was lucky enough, got him, it went in.”
Luck had nothing to do with it.
Although he almost didn’t get the chance to show off his wiles. The penalty shot was held up for a minute or so. “I was lining up and the linesman came over to say they were checking to see if it went into the net or not.” The original shot, whilst getting hauled down. “Obviously it didn’t go in.”
That would have been comparatively anti-climactic anyway.
On the No. 1 goal, Marner had hammered at a Jake Muzzin rebound. “Great shot by Muzzie. Got my stick on it. Hit the post.”
William Nylander, in search of his own redemption, pushed the Leafs ahead 3-1 late in the second. A John Tavares empty-netter ended it with 1:19 in regulation.
Putting some hair on his chest, these playoff wars, for “Mitchie.” Earlier in the day, Marner had vowed to do his valiant best to grow a playoff beard.
“Peach fuzz gets a little heavier now,’’ the dynamic winger assured. “Maybe I can go somewhere to get it dyed. It’s probably just gonna look gross.”
Of course everything the 21-year-old has done this year has been valorous. And it will take more than one series — even a septet long — for Marner, with cheeks as smooth as a baby’s bum, to sprout even a burr of stubble.
As for gross? Ah, there was the Game 1 rub — for the Bruins.
A flurry of turnovers in the opening minute by Toronto, a signature Patrice Bergeron goal on a power play midway through the first period. But it never felt like the Leafs were overwhelmed; definitely not back on their heels. Imposing their speed on the Bruins, victimizing a vulnerable Boston back end.
“We know we’re fast in this locker room,” said Marner. “When we play fast it’s hard to stop us.”
So, the plan. “We just wanted to make sure we were getting the puck in for the first 10 minutes, make it hard on their D,’’ Marner continued. “I thought we did a great job on that.”
Marner had also insisted on Thursday morning that those team-leading 94 points didn’t mean squat anymore, inside the crush ’n’ grind of a first-round playoff series. Ditto his marvelous performance against the Bruins in the Second Season, circa 2018.
“I’m not trying to think about last year at all,” he’d said, before pulling a toque over his head and striding off into the cold of a Boston April day. “It doesn’t matter. We lost that series.”
As if anybody needs reminding — that 5-1 boot to the goolies in Game 1, followed by another harsh loss before the Leafs roused themselves from their weird somnolence. And then — no need to revisit it here — that ghastly Game 7 third period.
“Last year there were a lot of ups and downs through the series, through each game, a lot of turn of events,’’ reminded Marner. “Last year our team wasn’t great at holding a lead in the third period. This year we’ve done a lot better job at that, keeping the pressure on in the third period when we have that lead.”
Seize the moment was Marner’s advice to himself. Seize the shift, seize the period and then seize the game.
“Anything can happen,” Marner pointed out. “No lead is safe. Make sure that no matter what happens, you just get back on track. Back to doing what you do best. And make sure that we’re not beating ourselves.”
Huh. Beat Boston instead. Wiped out home-ice advantage and Game 1 gobsmacked the jam right out of the Bruins.
If for one night only. But a hell of a night.
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno
Extra from The Big name & Companions
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