TORONTO – Mitch Marner didn’t know he’d be playing with Auston Matthews when the Maple Leafs met the Boston Bruins on Saturday until the morning of the game, a rare opportunity for the young stars to combine forces in a major divisional matchup. And the duo saved their best work of the night for its end, when Matthews teed up Marner in overtime for a shot from his knee that ricocheted off Morgan Rielly and in, to lift the Leafs to a 4-3 victory.
“It’s a great feeling getting that game over with and winning it,” Marner said. “Got told in the morning that we were just going to watch what the [Bruins] did with their lines and kind of go off that and I thought we played well together, had good chemistry out there. Offensively speaking I thought we played a really well-rounded game.”
That was hardly a given for Toronto, given the personnel they were missing by the end. John Tavares was already out, sidelined by a broken finger suffered in Wednesday’s loss to Washington. Then Andreas Johnsson was forced out for the third period with a leg injury after blocking a shot from Brandon Carlo late in the second.
Head coach Mike Babcock was prepared to be creative with his line matching as it was, toggling Marner and William Nylander on the right side of Matthews and Alexander Kerfoot throughout the game while trying to neutralize the Bruins’ big line of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand.
In the midst of all that movement, goaltender Frederik Andersen was rock solid in net through his best outing of the season, making 43 saves to secure the victory.
“We had talked about [playing Marner and Matthews together] two days ago, kind of knew what we were going to do,” Babcock said. “We were going to play Nylander with Matthews when [the draw] was in the offensive zone, and when it was a matchup situation, we were going to play him with Mitch. It was important because John was out to find a way to win it, and it was probably even more important when we lost Johnsson that we got it done. I thought Freddie [was] real good; I thought he had an unbelievable night.”
The Leafs’ and Bruins’ tops units traded one goal each in the game, with Rielly getting Toronto on the board early in the first courtesy of assists from Marner and Johnsson, and then Pastrnak tying the game 3-3 late in the third with helpers from Marchard and Bergeron. That was Rielly's first goal of the season, and while he tried vehemently to deny taking credit for the overtime winner, it was eventually awarded to him after originally being called Marner's.
“I thought we did well,” surmised Matthews, who finished at 50 per cent in the face-off dot with one assist. “I think any time you're playing that line, you’ve got to be extra cautious, you can't cheat for offense, you have to compete out there, especially in face-offs against a guy like [Bergeron], so I thought we did a pretty good job and we like the end result.”
After Rielly’s initial marker had put the Leafs up 1-0, Dmytro Timashov extended the lead to 2-0 with his first career NHL goal. That score nearly lasted into the second, until Jake DeBrusk broke through with 20 seconds left in the first to make it 2-1 Toronto.
Boston then dominated the second frame, earning three power play opportunities and outshooting Toronto 15-3. The Bruins had come into the game with the NHL’s second-ranked man advantage, and after the Leafs killed off the first two chances, Danton Heinen scored with two seconds left in the final power play to tie the game 2-2 early in the third. One minute later, Alexander Kerfoot had taken it back for Toronto, and the two sides battled until Pastrnak’s late score put the game into overtime.
“[The win] means a lot. We know it wasn't an easy game,” Marner said. “Especially with John missing and then that was a hell of a block by Johnsson there. I thought guys stepped up like we talked about all week, guys had to step up and play a bigger role. I thought everyone did that and everyone came ready to play.”
Babcock was non-committal though on whether the changes the Leafs made would remain long-term. Tavares is expected to miss at least two weeks with his injury, but Babcock said the X-rays on Johnsson’s leg were negative and he shouldn’t miss much time.
“I'm tempted to have the best lineup we can and if that's [Matthews and Marner] together then I’ll do that,” he said. “I don't know what's going to happen, I can't predict that. I just know that you go day to day. It's not as easy to second guess [decisions] during; you've got to make those decisions in advance. Sometimes it goes good, and you feel great and sometimes it goes terrible and you wish you wouldn't have done it.”
If the new linemates would get a vote though, sticking together would be the way to go.
“It didn't really feel like there were any problems, it felt like right away we knew where each other were going to be,” Marner said. “We tried to talk a lot on the bench, in the o-zone, in the d-zone and I thought that's what made us kind of click right away. I thought we did a good job.”