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Marner helping Leafs get ahead of the game with creative play

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner - The Canadian Press

The Maple Leafs (optional) and Florida Panthers skated at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday ahead of tonight’s game. 

Mitch Marner created a 2-on-1 rush with a pass off his head on Sunday in Nashville. 

"I guess what went through my mind is he's never going to stop talking about it if we score," defenceman Morgan Rielly said with a grin. "So, thankfully we didn't."

Marner is a brilliant blend of energy and IQ on the ice. Off the ice, he's the straw that stirs the drink in the dressing room. Teammates love to give it to him. 

"That was almost the greatest highlight of all-time," defenceman Justin Holl said with a smile. "We actually were kind of spared from seeing that over and over again."

Calle Jarnkrok was robbed by Predators goaltender Kevin Lankinen at the end of the sequence. After the 3-2 Leafs victory, Marner made it clear the soccer-style setup was by design. No one doubts it.

"Hockey happens so fast," said Florida Panthers winger Matthew Tkachuk, "but knowing him he had enough time to realize that's probably the only way he could get the puck to the guys. Just super smart player, probably one of the smartest in the NHL."

It actually started as a safe and simple play by Rielly. 

"I've been telling guys that going off the glass to relieve pressure isn't a bad idea," said newly-added defenceman Luke Schenn. "So Mo did it and, I mean, off the glass, off the head to a potential breakaway. He's just creative. I mean, who thinks of that? He's special and it almost worked out."

It's a play that you can't defend so the Panthers won't even try. 

"We won't put that on the video," said Florida coach Paul Maurice. "If it happens, it happens. There's certain events we won't prepare for and that would be one of them. It was a pretty good pass, though."

"It's something I wouldn't imagine he's practised very much," said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, "but he just improvises in that moment." 

Marner is a nightmare to game plan for and a delight to play with. 

"This kid can do it all," said Jarnkrok. 

"We hung out a ton at the All-Star Game," said Tkachuk, who played with Marner on the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League. "It was actually really fun to play on his team again even for that little thing." 

Marner is closing in on a career year. He's up to 94 points in 73 games and is earning some Selke Trophy buzz. Rielly, for one, believes Marner is the best defensive forward in the game. 

"I've had that opinion for a while now," Rielly said. "That area of his game can go unnoticed at times."

"As he's gotten older here he's valued that even more," said Keefe. "He wants to be put in those situations: penalty killer, the tough matchups and game on the line. He wants to be counted on in those situations."

When he's not using his head to make a play, the 25-year-old is using his mind to keep the Leafs a step ahead. 

"Everyone knows you can rely on him because he's so smart out there," Holl said.

The Leafs will go with 11 forwards and seven defencemen on Wednesday night. 

"The rotation is getting a little bit easier the more you play it and you kind of understand how it's going to work so that's been good," said Holl. 

The alignment should lead to some extra shifts for Toronto's top players, which could create matchup issues for the Panthers. 

"It can be a challenge," Maurice admits. "I do think it keeps your best players more engaged in the game, but health has a big factor on whether you can do it. If you got one more banged-up forward in your lineup and he goes down you got a real problem."

The Leafs last played on Sunday so they should be fresh. 

Maurice noted that the Pittsburgh Penguins often double shifted Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin when they were in their prime. 

"They would just drop one of those two guys down to the fourth line and then you were sewered," he said. "You had a major problem."

But the long-time coach is also quick to point out the 11-and-seven approach can make matching up defensively a struggle. 

"It also, though, puts you in a position to not necessarily get the match," Maurice said. "If you have a deep enough team you don't have to worry about that. One of our best games of the year we were undermanned and went into Tampa and played 11 and seven and didn't worry about a match all night and we played a helluva game and won."


In a rare move, defenceman Mark Giordano did not take part in Toronto's optional skate. 

"Slacking," said Rielly with a laugh. 

Did the team's staff encourage the 39-year-old to take a breather?  

"We have been for quite some time, he hasn't necessarily listened because he's in his groove," Keefe said. "We got him to take a game off and he responded positively to that. For some of these older guys who are in their routines, it is just a routine in a lot of cases and it feels like a mental block that they feel like they have to be out there. The moment they do start to miss some things they maybe discover they do feel pretty good coming out of that so then maybe you do change their mindset a little bit."

Rielly usually skips the optional skates, but decided to take the ice Wednesday morning. 

"No morning skate questions," he said with a chuckle.

The last two times Rielly did a pre-game skate in Toronto he scored that night. 

The other regulars on the ice on Wednesday morning included Sam Lafferty, David Kampf and Schenn.

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Ilya Samsonov has been better at home (.929 save percentage) than on the road (.892) this season. Matt Murray, meanwhile, has been better on the road (.915) than at home (.880).

"It's certainly something," said Keefe. "There's two extremes there on both sides. It's something we're looking at, for sure. I don't know how applicable it might be beyond the regular season. You get into playoffs and everything equalizes in terms of schedule and both teams are going through the same thing."

There's only a handful of games left, but Keefe plans to get Samsonov more reps on the road and Murray more looks at home. 

"It's certainly something that has my attention," Keefe said. 

ContentId(1.1938096): Will Samsonov's incredible home record help determine Leafs goalie plans for playoffs?

The Panthers have lost four straight games and sit three points out of a playoff spot. 

"Must-win," said Tkachuk of the team's mindset. "That's pretty much the mood."

Tkachuk has gone without a point in consecutive games for the first time since Dec. 30 and Jan. 1. He's only gone three games without a point once this season. What stands out to Aaron Ekblad?

"Scoring prowess," the Panthers defenceman said. "His ability to get on guys nerves and play hard every single night no matter what. He gets to the net. There's really not much he doesn't have. I mean, he's a complete player. He plays hard. He's the leader in the room and a guy we cherish on this team."

Edmonton Oilers centre Connor McDavid will undoubtedly win the Hart Trophy this season, but if the Panthers make the playoffs Tkachuk could be a nominee. His 97 points are 31 more than anyone else on the team. 

Tkachuk for MVP? 

"It's a little bit of a different league with Connor McDavid," said Ekblad, "but in our hearts, no doubt." 

ContentId(1.1938073): Panthers focused on 'must win' game in Toronto

Maurice refused to name a starter.

Sam Bennett did not skate and will miss a fifth straight game. 


Projected Leafs lines for Wednesday's game: 


Jarnkrok - Matthews - Marner 

Kerfoot - Tavares - Nylander 

Bunting - Lafferty 

Aston-Reese - Kampf - Simmonds 


McCabe - Brodie 

Rielly - Schenn 

Giordano - Holl 



Samsonov starts


Panthers lines at Wednesday's skate:


Luostarinen - Barkov - Duclair

Verhaeghe - Lundell - Tkachuk

Lomberg - Staal - Reinhart

Cousins - White - Smith


Forsling - Ekblad

Staal - Montour

Mahura - Gudas