TORONTO – Hockey, they say, is a game of mistakes. And making your opponent pay for them.
What’s most remarkable about Mitchell Marner may not be how few mistakes he makes himself but how he can lure the opposition into making them.
While Ryan McLeod certainly deserves blame for his horrendous own-zone pass into his own slot and onto the tape of Marner, a glaring gaffe that spun momentum on a dime and unravelled the Edmonton Oilers’ two-goal lead.
The way Marner thinks the game and moves his feet lured McLeod into a false sense of security.
Before making the highlight reels and catalyzing a 7-4 comeback victory his Toronto Maple Leafs, Marner noticed that it was a relatively inexperienced forward, MacLeod, attempting to break out deep in his D-zone and sensed his shot to make him uncomfortable.
“He’s just so smart. When you’re a high-end player like that, you kinda think about how the other players are (thinking) really well,” Auston Matthews said. “He can sneak up on you and steal pucks when you’re not paying attention.”
Instinct is learned through repetition, and we are witnessing the fruits of Marner’s 10,000 hours.
“I trained a lot for it as a kid, always trying to be good with my stick, have it on the ice, try to read people and have my instincts kick in,” Marner explained, after a four-steal, four-point, foresight clinic.
“Tried to do a little spin-o-rama fake and then cut back. I was a little scared there to be honest because it went post to post, and I wasn’t sure it was gonna trickle in the right way. So, nice to see it cross the goal line.”
The compliments poured in for Marner’s embarrassing of McLeod and undressing of Stuart Skinner.
“It’s stealing it, anticipating it, then it’s the all-in-one motion, the fake, getting the goalie to bite on his forehand and then laying it in there. It’s extremely impressive,” John Tavares said.
“How bad he wants to go out there and made a difference, no doubt that sparks the group.”
Yes, the marquee outside Scotiabank Arena may have read “Auston Matthews vs. Connor McDavid,” and the national Saturday showdown between the 2022 Hart and Rocket Richard champ and the slam-dunk 2023 Hart and Rocket Richard winner was fun theatre.
It certainly helped that Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe used last change to pit the feisty superstars against each other every faceoff he got, and that Matthews (eight shots, 13 attempts, two points) and McDavid (one goal, two helpers) both came to play.
“I wanted to go with the Matthews-McDavid matchup straight up here tonight,” Keefe said. “It’s an opportunity for us to take the puck out of his hands and play on offence.”
But make no mistake: Marner was the best player on the ice in these 60 minutes, just as he has been for so many Maple Leafs games this season.
“He took over the game for us,” William Nylander said.
Marner followed up his dirty deke by stealing another puck and feeding Nylander for the tying goal.
As the barn roared, the Leafs’ stars swarmed. The Core Four snatched the lead back with three goals in three minutes in a wild second period. They rode that momentum to five unanswered goals and an entertaining slice of revenge for last week’s stinker in Edmonton.
“Some good energy on the bench. Just encouraging each other,” Tavares said
“Good on us to take it and run with it,” Matthews added.
The Maple Leafs will run into a string of inspired teams during next week’s homestand. Buffalo, Colorado, and Carolina are all on deck.
Defenceman Luke Schenn should be available soon, too, as his wife gave birth to their third baby Friday in Vancouver.
He’ll be joining a team that is feeling good about itself.
Fox’s Fast 5
• Matt Murray has given up four goals in each of his past four starts.
The win masks the concern in net, but we didn’t love the ones he gave up Saturday.
Murray really overplays the near post on this Evander Kane wraparound and can’t get back in time:
• Morgan Rielly swallowed a smile when he was informed that Tavares had described the challenge of facing McDavid as “exciting.”
“He’s never played defence against him. ‘Exciting’ isn’t what I would say,” Rielly replied.
• Oilers deadline acquisition Mattias Ekholm is logging 20-plus minutes a night and has been a plus-7 through his first six games with Edmonton. He clapped his first goal with his new club Saturday.
“Mattias fits our team like a glove. He’s exactly what our team needed. He’s a big shutdown defender that has some offence to him,” coach Jay Woodcroft says.
“He has veteran poise, veteran presence. He’s had a very good effect on Evan Bouchard. When he’s on the ice, his teammates feel good about it and his coaches feel good about it.”
• Murray and Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse have remained close friends since their Soo Greyhound days. When the Leafs were in Edmonton last week, Murray went over to Nurse’s house, and his opponent cooked him up a steak dinner.
“Ran out of propane midway through, so I had to adjust,” Nurse smiled Saturday morning. “I didn’t get a text message this time. Must be because he’s playing tonight.”
• Keefe says he dropped Michael Bunting off Matthews’ top unit not because of the winger’s work ethic slipped but rather because his playmaking had not been crisp.
All three members of the line were getting frustrated with the number of rushes getting stalled in the neutral zone.
If Bunting wants to be a top-six fixture, he must keep plays alive.
“Sometimes guys need a little bit of a break from each other,” Keefe says.