TSN SportsCentre Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Toronto Maple Leafs, who practised at the Ford Performance Centre on Friday before flying to Tampa for Saturday’s game against the Lightning.
Mitch Marner received messages from Darryl Sittler and Eddie Olczyk after tying them for the longest point streak in Leafs history.
"It was cool having those two legends reach out and congratulate me," the 25-year-old winger said. "If you had told me growing up that this would've happened, I don't think I would've believed you. It's a cool thing to have your name with some legends in that blue-and-white category."
Marner can stand alone in the franchise record book if he picks up a point in a 19th consecutive game on Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Marner left it late in Wednesday's game against the San Jose Sharks needing an empty-net goal to keep this remarkable run going. He missed the net on an open look and passed to Michael Bunting on another chance before finally getting it done.
"Big Mike on the bench right away looked at me and couldn't believe I tried to pass it to him," Marner said. "He was pissed at me, to be honest. It was definitely a relief after it went in. The first two were pretty ugly attempts there by me and for these guys to just keep trying to find me there and keep telling me that they were looking for me means a lot."
It was Alex Kerfoot, who finally found Marner on the play that led to the record-matching point.
"We're all aware of the streak he's on right now and where it puts him in history and it's pretty special," Kerfoot said. "He's one of the best players in Leafs history already and we get to see it every day how special a player he is."
Auston Matthews led the cheers on the bench on Wednesday night as the Scotiabank Arena crowd offered an extended ovation following Marner's goal.
"Me and him have been through a lot together and obviously want to achieve great things together as well," Marner said. "I was with him with those big moments he had last year and it was so cool to take it in with him and be by his side. For him to just be that happy and that excited for me meant a lot. He's my brother."
"All of us are rooting for him," said Matthews, who broke the franchise's single-season goals record last year. "We just want him to continue to play the way he's playing and not put too much pressure on himself to go out there and produce."
The streak brings pressure, but Marner faces daily pressure as one of the leaders on a Leafs team seeking a breakthrough.
"He has learned to deal with that very well," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "He has been through it, is the big thing. Like anything else, with the things you go through on the ice, you go through it and you learn how to deal with it. You know what works and what doesn't. He is at a point now where he is very comfortable with who he is, the work that he does, and trusts that process to give him opportunities to succeed. Everything else outside of that is just noise and negative energy ... You are seeing some of those results in how he is dealing with adversity."
Marner credits his dog Zeus for helping him deal with stress. He has written the letter Z on his sticks and gloves to remind him of the chocolate lab, who loves him unconditionally. He wore socks with dogs on them while walking into the rink on Wednesday.
"I got home from that road trip and my fiancé had those socks waiting for me," Marner said. "I think they were supposed to be a Christmas present but she just said, 'Get them on early.'"
Marner got some quality time in with Zeus during Thursday's day off for the team.
"We went for a nice stroll together," Marner said. "We got some good snuggle time in on the couch. It was a good day."
Must have been the lucky Zeus socks 🐶 pic.twitter.com/QhLxlz6SYY— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) December 1, 2022
But now it's back to work with a game looming against the Lightning, who knocked the Leafs out in a seven-game series in May.
"Stick with our program and try not to make too many mistakes," Marner said of the required mindset. "They want to really build off the rush and try and counter your mistakes. We got to make sure we're smart with our pucks and smart with our decisions."
"Tampa is not going to give you anything for free," warned Keefe. "It is a great challenge for our entire team."
It's early but the Leafs, second in the Atlantic Division, and Lightning, third in the Atlantic, appear to be trending toward another playoff showdown.
"A team that's been at the top of the league and a team that a lot of teams are trying to emulate," said Matthews. "We're trying to get to that sort of level and earn that kind of respect, but obviously it takes time. It'll be another good challenge for us. We're ready to go."
"These guys have been the class of the league for a number of years," said Kerfoot. "Any time we get a chance to play them it's a good opportunity to really test ourselves and see where we're at and especially going down there in that building, it's a tough place to play."
Movember is over, but Marner is still sporting a lip sweater. How long will he keep the moustache?
"I don't even know if you can call it a moustache," he said sheepishly. "I don't know, man. My fiancé kind of likes it. She wants me to dye it a little bit, but we'll see. It's probably going to come off here soon. It's just a matter of time."
Marner previously told the media he's not superstitious ... but will he stick with the facial hair until after the streak ends?
"We'll see. We'll see. Maybe," he said with a smile. "I'm not superstitious though, boys."
Marner isn't the only player, who relies on his dog to stay light amid the grind of the NHL season.
"My dog doesn't speak or say anything," said Matthews. "He just lays there and chills. I don't have to talk to anybody. I don't have to hear from anybody. It's great. He's going to love you no matter if you have a good game or a bad game so it's fun."
Kerfoot has an Australian Labradoodle named Coconut.
"It's just nice," the Harvard product said. "It's something to take your mind off of the game when you get home. When you come back from road trips you know the dog's there for you. It’s also nice on off days to get outside, go take the dog for walks and that type of thing."
Nick Robertson is jealous. He has a dog, but not with him in Toronto.
"He's not here yet," the 21-year-old winger said. "So, I need him to get here and soon. I think of hockey too much away from the rink. I need something to distract me and kind of know that there’s more than just hockey."
When will his dog – named Bronco – arrive?
"Hopefully after Christmas," he said. "I'm trying to figure out some moving pieces and stuff. Hopefully he gets here soon."
Robertson has been a healthy scratch in seven of the last nine games.
"It's kind of hard," he admitted. "I mean, it's kind [of] on me too, but I want to get these games, get going, get the production back and it's kind of hard when you're out for a little bit and you come back. It's hard to get back into it."
Robertson scored two goals in his season debut on Oct. 20 against the Dallas Stars, but has just three assists in 11 games since.
But with Calle Jarnkrok out at least two weeks with a groin injury, Robertson looks likely to get a run of games in a row.
"Now it's a challenge — with every game I get — to do everything I can to stay consistent and stay in the lineup," he said.
Robertson skated alongside John Tavares and Marner on Friday. What's the key to success when you play with Marner?
"Just give him the puck," Robertson said. "That's the thing I've seen just being with him. You give him the puck and let him do his thing."
Robertson is drawing inspiration from older brother Jason Robertson. The Stars forward sits second in NHL scoring behind only Connor McDavid and is riding a 17-game point streak.
"That's the amazing thing," the younger Robertson said of the streak, "But, as far as his production, I mean, that's what he's getting paid for, that's his job so I'm not surprised by that aspect. Hopefully, it can trickle down to me (smile) ... He's as chill as chill can be."
The Leafs visit Dallas on Tuesday, which would be the third NHL meeting between the siblings. Nick scored the overtime winner in their showdown last month.
Wayne Simmonds will draw in for Saturday's game in Tampa.
"I don't know if there's extra emotion," the gritty winger said, "but we're definitely cognizant of the fact that this is a team that knocked us out of the playoffs and stole our dream last year. We want to continue playing hockey the way we've been playing the last month. It's never bad when you get to stick it to a team who took you out of the playoffs."
Simmonds has played in five games this season with all but one coming on the road.
"We think he is a guy that has played well for us against Tampa, in particular, and helped us on the road," said Keefe. "It's just having a little more experience on the road against an experienced team like Tampa."
Simmonds played in the first two games of the playoff series in May before being scratched in the final five games.
"What we learned is they played a very patient game and they capitalized on the mistakes that we made," Simmonds said. "I think somehow we have to find a way to be able to attack, but at the same time not give up opportunities off the attack, because I felt like when we did that's when they struck. That's why they won the series."
Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov have missed time due to injury early this season. On Wednesday, both dressed in the same game for only the third time. Toronto finally has its goaltending tandem in tact.
Samsonov was solid against the San Jose Sharks in his return from a knee injury and is now 7-2-0 with a .924 save percentage. Murray is 5-0-1 with a .938 save percentage since returning from an adductor issue. So, what's the plan now?
"We want to have both guys involved," Keefe said. "That is the reality of the NHL, first of all. In our situation, specifically, both guys have played so well. Coming into the season, we believed in their abilities and thought we could get a lot of use out of both. That mindset hasn't changed. However, it is a day-to-day thing. We will look at it based on schedule. We think Matt has done a terrific job and has played a fair number of starts in a row. He has really gone on a roll. He didn't play the other night, so it is important for us to get him back in. He will go tomorrow."
The Leafs have a pretty light schedule in December with no back-to-back situations.
"We have a bit of a plan going forward, but we won't communicate that to anyone — including them — until we need to," Keefe said. "I think it is important we take each day as it comes and decide from there."
Toronto finally has its tandem in tact— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) December 2, 2022
Wednesday was only 3rd game Matt Murray & Ilya Samsonov both dressed for Leafs pic.twitter.com/003keCs3wT
Samsonov predicted Marner would keep his streak alive against the Sharks.
"I know," the 25-year-old said after the game. "I looked to the future."
So, how long can Marner keep this going?
"We'll see," the grinning goalie said. "Almost 50 [games]. Yeah, I believe so."
Marner arched an eyebrow when informed of Samsonov's comment.
"He's a lot of fun to have around this locker room," Marner said. "He's pretty hilarious to have around the fellas and every once in a while just some nice Russian swear words coming out. It's a great time. It keeps everyone on their toes."
T.J. Brodie will accompany the team on the road.
"He is progressing well," said Keefe. "We are not necessarily expecting him to play on this trip, but we do have a practice day in Dallas and morning skates and such. I think we will see him more involved in regular team activities."
Brodie has been sidelined with an oblique injury since Nov. 11.
Lines at Friday's practice:
Bunting - Matthews - Nylander
Robertson - Tavares - Marner
Kerfoot - Kampf - Engvall
Aston-Reese - Holmberg - Simmonds
Giordano - Holl
Sandin - Liljegren
Mete - Hollowell
Special teams work at Friday's practice:
Sandin, Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares
Giordano, Liljegren, Engvall, Robertson, Bunting
Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander, Bunting