Bruce Arthur: Mitch Marner takes a star spin for Maple Leafs, now it’s Auston Matthews’ turn

Bruce Arthur: Mitch Marner takes a star spin for Maple Leafs, now it’s Auston Matthews’ turn
BOSTON—Without question, Game 1 belonged to Mitch Marner. He spun and wheeled and found the safest dangerous places, out of the reach of Boston’s best, and afterward Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy casually called him Toronto’s best player. More, Cassidy moved his best guys away from Marner and John Tavares and Zach Hyman in the third period. Maybe he had seen enough.

Mostly, Cassidy shifted them to Auston Matthews. Matthews and his linemates of Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson had been pinned in their own end more than you’d like against the line anchored by Boston’s second-line centre, David Krejci; against the Patrice Bergeron line, featuring Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, they were pinned a little more. Matthews had hit a post and had another great chance, and his line had a better share of the chances than the shot totals suggested; Marner, though, was the one who broke through.

Leafs centre Auston Matthews can probably expect to see more of Patrice Bergeron in Game 2, after the Bruins centre was moved away from the John Tavares-Mitch Marner-Zach Hyman line in Game 1.  (Icon Sportswire / GETTY IMAGES)

In a way it was a footnote to Toronto’s 4-1 Game 1 win, in which the Maple Leafs drew on so many strong performances against the team that eliminated them a year ago. It’s not a bad problem to have, with only one franchise player blazing across the sky.

But it was also an echo of last year’s series. Marner led the Leafs with two goals and seven assists for nine points in those seven games; Matthews had one goal and one assist, despite a team-high 27 shots on goal. His underperformance was overblown, but that’s hockey for you.

“We set Auston’s line against (Sasha) Barkov when Florida came in,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock, referring to te Panther’s young two-way star. “We did that down the stretch to prepare for these opportunities. The bottom line is you got to stay patient. Lots of times, I’ve said this before, lots of times when you’re a good player you don’t score right away in the playoffs. It doesn’t look like it’s going good, people are evaluating you. Don’t worry about what everyone thinks, just do your job, and in the end it will go your way. Be patient with what you’re doing and grind. Work.”

Down the stretch of the regular season, after an elite season in which he didn’t visibly progress, Matthews began to fly again. He had 36 shots on goal in 13 games in December; he had 70 shots on goal in 14 games in March. William Nylander on his wing helped, but Nylander was back down on the third line in Game 1, and he finished a beautiful stretch pass from Nazem Kadri for Toronto’s third goal.

As every Leaf echoed after Game 1, it was only one game, which seems self-evident when you put it like that. But it was also a reminder of the funny pas-a-deux the Leafs have been lucky enough to be doing the past few years. Marner had a slower build to his current peak, but he was tied with Tavares for third in the league in points per 60 minutes played at 5-on-5. Matthews, the instant NHL prodigy, was third in that measure last season; this year, he was 10th.

And of course Matthews got his five-year contract, and Marner, who decided not to negotiate during the season, remains unsigned. Next thing you know, the fine people at TSN are debating whether he is pricing himself out of the Leafs’ cap situation. Which, eh, you pay for stars.

The Leafs already paid Matthews, and there are a lot of people who still think his ceiling is second only to Connor McDavid’s, with health and growth. But when Toronto recruited Tavares they sold him on Marner, and they formed the line that Babcock trusts with the toughest assignments. Suddenly, Matthews was one hell of a second-line centre.

And in Game 1 Marner had two goals, one short-handed, was on the ice at 5-on-5 for seven shots for and two against with Bergeron on the ice, and he left Boston trying to figure out how to contain his quick feet and quicker mind.

“He’s smart, man,” Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin said. “He’s just a smart player. He reads the play so well, he’s almost one step ahead, to be honest, defensively and offensively. Great hand-eye, knows where players are, obviously a good skater, put all that together and you’ve got one heck of a hockey player, and we’re lucky to have him.”

So now it’s Matthews’ turn. He might get more of the Bergeron line in Game 2, or if the Bruins split up that line and the Zdeno Chara-Charlie McAvoy pair, more of the giant who helped limit Matthews in that series last year. If it’s the Bergeron line, well, they combined this season for 106 goals, which was as many as Boston’s next 11 highest scorers. You hold that line, you beat Boston. And they’re going to either see a lot of Marner and Tavares, or Matthews.

“They’re extremely skilled, and Bergeron’s really good in his own end,” said Matthews. When asked if he wanted that challenge, he said, “Yeah, I mean who you go out there against doesn’t really matter, you’ve got to go out there and compete and play a 200-foot game and do things right and just help the team in all areas.”

Mitch Marner has announced himself. If Auston Matthews does too, buckle your seatbelt. Then this thing could get really fun.
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