Sports Leafs sensation Marner keeps eyes on the prize: DiManno

16:30  21 april  2017
16:30  21 april  2017 Source:   Toronto Star

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It was during the national anthem that the TV camera panned in on Mitch Marner standing at the bench and lingered on him for a while.

Eyes shut, forehead resting against the edge of his stick, swaying gently side-to-side, that hockey rhythm thing.

He might almost have been praying.

(Quick cutaway to sound bite from Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock on the morning after Game 4: “It went downhill after the national anthem.’’)

Marner, though, was indeed kind of Zen-ing out on “O Canada,” seeking his small and quiet place before the puck dropped, before who know how things would unfold — except we now do know and, to quote Babcock, “she wasn’t pretty.’’

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“Since junior, for the national anthem, I just close my eyes and clear my mind,” the teenage Leaf was explaining on Thursday, ahead of the club charter-jaunting back to D.C., in what has all the hallmarks of multiple stop travel itinerary for both teams over the coming days, regardless of who returns to Toronto with a 3-2 edge for Game 6.

Marner expounds on his eyes wide shut.

“Think about what I need to do to be successful on the ice,” Marner is saying about his pre-game mental exercise. “Relax, take a couple of deep breaths. Use those moments.’’

But there’s more to it, as Marner will admit, a bit bashfully. Because it’s corny, you know?

“When I was little, I used to sing the national anthem and close my eyes. It stayed with me in junior. It’s just been my thing since day one.”

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And while many of us consider the anthem ritual a time-wasting pain in the butt, that was a rather goose-pimply rendition on Wednesday, as Martina Ortiz-Luis lifted her microphone towards a crowd in full-throated a capella.

“I’ve been lucky enough to grow up in this great country,” says Marner, who hardly looks that grown up at all, and why isn’t he at the mall manically texting his teen pals or doing his algebra homework instead of contesting in the Stanley Cup playoffs?

“Hearing our national anthem all the time, hearing our fan base singing it last night, so cool.’’

Totally cool. Totally awesome, how this collection of Leafs — nearly half of them kidlets in their debut post-season, even the so-called vets scarcely familiar with the playoff strut — have sprung out of their short pants in a series, catching the Capitals with their pants down both here and there, cutting them down into bite-sized pieces from the back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy elitists they were just a week ago.

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It’s a good half-hour after the Leafs have left the ice following practice and James van Riemsdyk is back on the ice, alone. Of course, what everybody had noticed is that rookie hotshot Mitch Marner hasn’t been on the ice at all on this Friday morning, nor seen later, kept well away from enquiring reporters.

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So caught up in the yin and yang of this series that Marner wasn’t even aware that the Calder Trophy nominees would be revealed within a few hours. In any sane year, Marner would certainly have heard his name announced among rookie-of-the-year finalists. Except it’s been such a bumper crop in 2016-17 with solid contenders right in this dressing room, with Marner and William Nylander record-busters both. But Marner rolls his baby blues when it’s suggested he might, he should be in the running, along with the likes of Patrik Laine and Zach Werenski and . . .

That eye-roll casts to the left, towards the locker of one Auston Matthews. “It’s pretty simple,’’ says Marner, without a hint of grudge. “Just look at what he did this year. That’s what I would say: Just look at what he did for this team. He’s been a huge part of our success. But we’re all brothers in here.”

Leafs regular-season rookie sensation Mitch Marner hasn't missed a beat in the playoffs. © Carlos Osorio Leafs regular-season rookie sensation Mitch Marner hasn't missed a beat in the playoffs.

Well yes. And ditto.

Marner, despite his slight dimensions, hardly any fill in his chest and arms, his first-round selection by Toronto ridiculed in some corners — too small for the NHL game — had been a stud in the regular season, arguably the most clever of all Leaf forwards with that 360 vision that some players are born with, fast and flitting. Masterful assists leader on the club, somehow finding space and ice for himself even inside the close quarters of playoff hockey, a couple of assists in Wednesday’s 5-4 loss, three shots on Braden Holtby, first playoff goal already in his pocket from Game 1.

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Except Game 4, of course, saw the spread between the first seed and the eighth seed emerge, the Capitals pumping in four goals in the opening frame, and the 5-4 final was somewhat flattering to Toronto.

Babcock: “I thought it was our least competitive game of the four, from the faceoff circle to the battles on the wall to the races for the puck to getting to the net to being boxed out.”

Bright side: It hasn’t taking long — and three OT contests helped — for the neophytes to come up to playoff speed, physically and psychically in the swing of a seven-set series, should it come to that.

Not a one considers himself too raw for the task. They figure they’ve seen the best of what the Caps can throw at them. But of course they haven’t seen the best of the Caps at all yet, which is the truly unfathomable part: Why have these Caps, but for 20 minutes on Wednesday, been so un-Capitalian?

Not Marner’s problem to figure out. His problem, Toronto’s problem, is correcting the deficiencies of Game 4, hence the team’s video tutorial Thursday morning.

“Obviously last night at the start we were a little slow,” states Martin as Captain Obvious. “We didn’t play the way we wanted to, I think we all know that.’’

That’s the exasperation of sports sometimes; you know what’s going wrong but can’t fix it in the moment. Yet the Leafs might want to make a study of the Caps, noted Marner, or at least the Capitals who unleashed a frenzied attack out of the chute Wednesday. It would not be an exaggeration to state Washington had desperation in their sails.

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“They showed from the very start how bad they wanted to win that game,” says Marner. “That’s where we’ve got to come out and be the same way.’’

Even if, perhaps, the Leafs will have to manufacture some of that desperation, since few predicted they would drag this series to six.

It’s not quantum physics: Establish a hard forecheck early, pressure the D, traffic in front Holtby, exploit superior speed to get behind the blue-liners, muck it in the corners, quick transitions to penetrate Washington’s hard-shell defensive structure and shoot-shoot-shoot the puck. In the opposition zone, that’s all the fun stuff.

“They’ve got a lot of skill on that team, a lot of death,” acknowledges Marner, who doesn’t appear remotely cowed by the opposition. “A lot of guys can do a lot of damage. We’ve got to respect them. At the same time, be ready to play our game, not give them any space and time with the puck because they’ll do something with it.”

They’ve come through the forge of the Verizon Center already. Big deal.

“The first 10 minutes is going to be very important for our team,” Marner continues. “That’s going to really predict the rest of the game for us. We haven’t started the way we wanted to, really, in any of the games. (Wednesday) night, we knew they were going to come out hard. We expected it. What we didn’t know was how hard it was actually going to be.

“Now we know.”

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