Mitch Marner’s Thursday began with a healthy dose of self-deprecation.
Ahead of Game 1 against the Bruins, the Toronto Maple Leafs winger poked fun at his imminent playoff beard,a group of reporters assembled in Boston that it’s “probably just going to look gross.”
The 21-year-old then disappeared from the public eye. Physically, anyway.
Around that time, the New York Times – perhaps the most respected news organization on the planet –a 1,000-word web article on Marner’s path from minor hockey to NHL stardom.
A few hours later, at roughly 6:30 p.m. ET, his mug reappeared in a taped Sportsnet TVfocused on veteran Patrick Marleau’s close relationship with Auston Matthews and Marner, the franchise’s tent-pole forwards for the foreseeable future.
It’s safe to say that if you were a media-consuming hockey fan on Thursday, you probably would have needed to go out of your way to escape Marner-related frivolity, hype, or aw-shucks behavior.
Next came the much-anticipated opening game in a first-round playoff rematch between fierce Atlantic Division rivals. In front of 17,565 fans inside TD Garden, Marner came roaring out of the gate, because of course he did, notching his team’s first two goals in the opening 23 minutes of action.
In the meantime, two separate commercials starring Marner and a Leafs teammate – Apple with Matthews and Visa with William Nylander – aired during breaks in the three-hour broadcast. Finally, at the conclusion of Toronto’s convincing 4-1 victory, it was Marner who donned the famous Hockey Night in Canada towel for a walk-offwith reporter Kyle Bukauskas.
All in all, he finished the night with two goals and a boatload of publicity. Call it the Mitch Marner Hat Trick.
It’s been that kind of year for Marner, who’s on a trajectory seemingly headed for the moon. Already in 2019, he’s appeared in plenty of spots for big or emerging companies like Under Armour, Red Bull, Beats Electronics, Chevrolet, Goodfood, and Intact Insurance. And this summer, he’s primed to command eight figures annually as a marquee restricted free agent.
Most important for Leafs fans right now is his performance on the ice. And Marner, the club’s regular-season points leader with 26 goals and 68 assists in 82 games, was an absolute handful in Game 1.
Late in the first period, he buried a rebound created by his own deflection that hit the post. In the second, he scored on a penalty shot produced moments earlier by his speed and seam-finding ability on the penalty kill. Both tallies beat Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask cleanly.
For the game, the fourth overall pick of the 2015 draft finished tied for first among Leafs in shot attempts with six. He skated for 19 minutes and eight seconds, trailing only Matthews among forwards, and was even deployed in a defensive role by coach Mike Babcock with time winding down in the third period.
Throughout the contest, Marner, John Tavares, and Zach Hyman outdueled the incredibly tough Bruins line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. Theymore shot attempts, scoring chances, and goals at five-on-five despite Boston holding the upper hand with last change. Top Bruins defensemen Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy didn’t get caved in, but they failed to minimize the Toronto trio.
At this point, the Hyman-Tavares-Marner trio is simply one of the best in hockey. It may not have the track record or respect of the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak grouping or the power-and-skill blend of Colorado’s Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen line, but it can hang with the headliners. All three Toronto players hit new highs in goals and points in the regular season, with Marner driving the bus seemingly every night.
Now in his third season, Marner is far from a secret. He’s certainly not overrated, and his game is much more than scoring. Case in point: Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper heaped serious praise on the young forward in March,Marner’s “as smart a player as this league has not only seen this year; has ever seen.” What a compliment.
Cooper was referring to Marner’s elusiveness, sky-high hockey IQ, and well-roundedness, and it sounds like Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy might concur. “We need to find an answer to him,” Cassidyafter Game 1.
It’s still obvious that Matthews, the 6-foot-3, 216-pound goal-scoring machine, is the face of the Maple Leafs franchise and likely to be its next captain. There’s no denying that, or goalie Frederik Andersen being the team’s regular-season MVP, or Morgan Rielly putting forth a Norris Trophy-caliber season, or Tavares being, well, John Tavares.
But Marner, at least based on recent results, is the most consistent and noteworthy contributor of them all. He stirs the drink and is the ultimate creator of time and space. He’s dangerous in all three zones, and his level of play has never dipped when the stakes are high. Following Game 1, he’s up to 15 points in 14 career playoff games.
Many pegged Andersen and/or Matthews as the X-factors in this Toronto-Boston series. Which is fair. Upon further review, though, it may be Marner, the guy who has it all going on. “Gross” playoff beard included.
John Matisz is theScore’s National Hockey Writer. You can find him on Twitter.
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