The play didn’t actually result in a goal, but came pretty close, another demonstration of the ease with which the NHL seems to be coming to Maple Leafs rookie Mitch Marner.
It was late in the second period Saturday evening when Marner circled the Washington goal with puck in tow, cut back through the slot to where he started and then whipped a pass across the ice to Tyler Bozak, his attempt denied by reigning Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby. Marner had his eyes up the whole way, scanning the ice for opportunities, not bothered seemingly by Marcus Johansson, the Capitals winger trailing on the play.
“When you see him start wheeling the zone like that and going for a full lap you know it’s a confident player,” said linemate James van Riemsdyk.
Marner had already set up two Toronto goals at that point, vaulting into a share of first in the rookie scoring race while helping the Leafs end a three-game losing streak. The 19-year-old, now with 18 points, has matched Winnipeg Jets’ sensation Patrik Laine for first among rookies, also tied with van Riemsdyk for the Leafs’ scoring lead.
Marner leads all NHL rookies with 14 even-strength points, boasting six multi-point outings in his first 21 NHL games.
His first point of the evening against Washington was a savvy find of veteran winger Matt Martin. Digging the puck out along the wall in the Toronto end Marner then fired a dart from one blue-line to the other, Martin slipping behind the Washington defence before beating Holtby for his second goal in as many games.
He added his second helper of the night on van Riemsdyk’s team-leading ninth goal this year (tied with Kadri) and first on the power play.
A former top five overall pick himself, van Riemsdyk has been struck by Marner’s hockey sense, vision and poise with the puck. A star for three seasons with the London Knights, Marner has long been compared to another former Knight, Patrick Kane, an equally shifty winger who won the Hart and Art Ross trophies last year.
A then-19-year-old Kane also emerged as the 2008 Calder trophy winner, scoring 21 goals and 72 points as a rookie for the Chicago Blackhawks. Marner is currently on pace for 27 goals and 70 points in his first season, a strong early contender for the top rookie award.
“Obviously [Marner] is just getting his feet wet now and there’s room for him to grow,” said van Riemsdyk, a teammate of Kane with American teams internationally, including the 2014 Olympics and more recently the World Cup of Hockey. “But his upside and potential is huge and you definitely see some of those similar tendencies: a little bit of poise, that ability to hold the puck the extra second to make that great play.
“He’s a guy who loves the game and he works really hard at it so the sky’s the limit for him.”
Toronto had dropped its previous three games, all by a goal, before rising to beat the Capitals. Additionally crucial in the club’s eighth home victory in 11 tries this season (8-3-0) was the play of No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen and a group charged with slowing down Alex Ovechkin and some of the more dangerous Washington players.
Andersen was perfect for the first 49 minutes, beaten twice ultimately on 35 shots. He made maybe his best stop of the game near the midway point of the final period, stretching to snatch John Carlson’s attempt with his glove. The Capitals defenceman appeared to have an open cage to shoot at.
Andersen improved to 7-3-0 in November with a .931 save percentage.
His efforts helped the Leafs hold onto a third period lead, a struggle at points this season, including on Wednesday night when the Devils rallied to beat them 5-4 in a shootout. Toronto has dropped a league-worst five games when leading after 40 minutes, now 8-1-4 as November nears its end.
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said preserving leads came down to taking care of the puck.
“It’s a process and you have to learn how to do it and you’ve got to get used to doing it and once you get used to doing it it’s just automatic,” Babcock said.
Otherwise helpful to the Leafs was the defence pairing of Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev and matchup line of Nazem Kadri, Nikita Soshnikov and Leo Komarov. The fivesome, primarily tasked with checking Ovechkin, not only held the Russian winger to just a single assist, but finished well above par in terms of puck possession.
Ovechkin entered the night with 32 goals and 25 assists in 39 career games against Toronto.