Does Mitch Marner ever not have fun?
He bounds in and out of media scrums and the post-game snack table with the same energy he takes to playing the power play, the penalty kill and even strength play.
You can’t take your eyes off this six-foot, 175-pound bundle of energy. And when he’s at his best — as he was Saturday in the Maple Leafs’ 5-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins — he’s nearly impossible to contain.
“Obviously, tremendous skill set and just brings it every shift with his all-around game,” said centre John Tavares. “The more you play with him, the better idea you get about his poise and his ability to hang onto the puck, read the play and buy time.
“It allows me to find space in open areas and get a sense of when he’s going to find the seams. The more you play together the more you understand each other’s tendencies.”
Killing a penalty mid-week against Dallas, Marner’s aggressive style forced three Stars to reverse from the Leafs’ blue line all the way back to behind their own net. They were that unsure of passing the puck anywhere close to Marner. He just skated toward them and they — on the power play and with the puck — retreated ever so slowly and carefully.
And on Saturday, Marner created more short-handed chances than Pittsburgh created with their power play. Leafs forward Par Lindholm just missed after Marner took the puck up ice and fooled two Penguin defenders into standing still.
Then, in the second period, Marner played takeaway to kill the end of the penalty. He looked like a 12-year-old Triple-A player against five 10-year-olds in house league, just holding the puck, daring them to come at him. The Penguins, hemmed by one player in their own zone, seemed happy Marner was at least contained.
“You get to go against the other team’s best players,” said Marner of penalty killing.
“That’s always a challenge, so you look forward to doing that. As a guy on the power play, you know what makes you uncomfortable, so I try to do that to other teams.
“I try to use my speed and get up ice as quickly as possible.”
The Maple Leafs can talk all they want about secondary scoring, and sure, you can wonder why some players are stuck at one goal 14 games into the season.
But they will only go as far as their top players will take them. It took them a couple of games to get used to the idea of not having Auston Matthews (shoulder) around, on top of the notion there’s no end in sight to the William Nylander contract impasse.
The top players — Marner, Tavares, Patrick Marleau, Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen — asserted themselves against Pittsburgh. Even Zach Hyman got into the fun, scoring short-handed, his first goal of the year.
And it’s going to be Marner most nights leading the Leafs in Matthews’ absence.
“Mitch is a good player for us,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “Mitch is a good player with or without the puck. The best he plays, I say this all the time, is when he’s really good defensively. Then he has the puck all the time.”
The idea now is to replicate their success on the road to the home setting Tuesday against the Vegas Golden Knights.
“We’re looking forward to getting home,” said Rielly, who scored twice on Saturday. “It’s important that we get some wins at home. We feel good about what’s going on on the road, but it’s time that we start to assert ourselves a little bit in our own building.”
The Leafs are 6-0-0 on the road, 3-5-0 at Scotiabank Arena. If there’s a magic formula for translating road success to home success, the Leafs haven’t found it. But they’re looking.
“Just make sure we come ready to play at home,” said Marner. “Bring that same intensity that we have on the road. Be more relaxed at home. I think we come in sometimes a little too tense, put a little too much pressure on ourselves. We just have to go out there and have fun.”