TORONTO – Mitch Marner has built his reputation on the kind of elite attack that fills prominent reels and brings Maple Leafs fans out of their seats.
But it was his willingness to take on the role of blocking shots late in Game 3 of Leafs' debut series with the Boston Bruins, which was still a big point of discussion the day after Toronto's 3-2 win.
Marner was the center of attention in the last 10 seconds when the Bruins pressed for the equalizer with an extra striker. As David Pastrnak Curled up by a slap, Marner threw his body in front of the disk, falling face down on the ice.
Pastrnak pushed the disc back into his club with Marner a few feet away, looking directly at a kick that bounced off his body just before the final bell rang to give the Leafs a 2-1 lead in the best of seven series.
"There are dentists for a reason, and whatever," Marner said after training in Toronto on Tuesday. "Luckily, it did not hit my face; could have been a difficult result if he had. I knew if [the shot] arrived there, it was going to be a difficult shot for Freddie. [Andersen] to save. It would be low and difficult and I did not know what could happen, so I tried to extend my arms as much as possible. "
Marner's commitment at the moments of death so impressed his teammates that they resisted the tradition and invaded him instead of Andersen immediately after the victory.
"I think we were just yelling at each other," he said. John Tavares. "I do not remember saying much, but a hell of a job stepping right through a very good timer and blocking another on the ice.
While some Leafs were surprised, Marner escaped from the play without any permanent damage, the initial launch of Pastrnak left a mark.
"The first shot was just a quick sting, but those shots always do that for a brief second and then okay," Marner said of temporarily limping. "[After that I] just tried starfish on it and take up as much space as I can on the ice. I was so close I did not think [the puck] was going to be able to lift a lot. I really do not know where that got me. I really did not feel anywhere. "
After the game, Leafs coach Mike Babcock called Marner's sacrifice the epitome of team building and something his teammates could emulate.
"I think anyone on that team would have done that," Marner said on Tuesday. "We are determined in this locker room, we want to win games. If it did not hit me, [Zach] Hyman or[[[[Jake Muzzin]I would have stayed in the way of that. Everyone wants to win in this locker room and do whatever it takes.
"We need everyone to have that mentality and mentality," Muzzin said. "That's just a guy doing whatever it takes to keep the disk out of the network."
The willingness to contribute at both ends of the ice was a hallmark of Marner's (and team leader's) best season of 94 points. Marner proved that he could produce offensively in his first two NHL seasons, leading the Leafs in points last year and at 69.
But it was not until this third campaign that the 21-year-old unleashed a strong defensive game to match.
His play in his own zone is rooted in lessons learned during his days with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. Under the tutelage of Mark and Dale Hunter, respectively general manager and team coach, Marner learned how critical a 200-foot game would be for success at all levels.
"The reason why [the Knights won a Memorial Cup in 2016] it was because the [Hunters] made everyone buy on the defensive side of the record and make sure you were on the track, "Marner explained.
"They really emphasized that. The first two years [in Toronto]I think I was cheating a little more offense, trying to get more weird stuff and stuff like that. I think I'm realizing that, defensively speaking, you have to stop people in your own zone and take your chances offensively of that. "
Marner has an average of one point per game (two goals, one assist) in the first three games of these playoffs, but that's how it helps to slow down the Bruins' top scorers that is becoming the biggest story.
Together with Tavares and Zach Hyman, plus the efforts of defensemen Jake Muzzin and Nikita Zaitsev, Marner held the Great Pastrnak Line of Boston, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand for a combination of two points with uniform force.
Marner's fierce backchecking was on full display in Game 3, frustrating the Bruins' stars through the neutral zone and robbing them of the impetus.
"For our line, it's just to make sure we're being smart with the puck, when we have our chances, we try to put it as much as possible," Marner said. "And when there is not a piece to do, try putting it behind them, get your D and start the cycle quickly. I think we've done a good job, but it's going to get more difficult from now on. "
That may be the case, but Tavares has no doubt that Marner is ready for any challenge. The opportunity to play right back was a big draw for Tavares when deciding to join Leafs as a free agent last summer and Marner more than gave up.
"I knew he was an extremely talented player and had a great sense of hockey," said Tavares. "But once you're around him every day and playing with him in the game, there are always times when he thrills you and [does] things that you are very impressed. He plays a big role for our team and does this in every game. "