TSN SportsCentre Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Toronto Maple Leafs as they prepare to face the Tampa Lightning on Saturday night.
The Tampa Bay Lightning hope Anthony Cirelli will help them cool off Mitch Marner on Saturday night. The Leafs winger is riding an 18 game point streak.
"Hopefully, Tony will take care of that," defenceman Victor Hedman said with a grin. "It means the world to us to get him back. He plays against top lines and not just defends well, but also can score. He's the full 200-foot player, who works his tail off every single game."
The 25-year-old shutdown centre has been sidelined since undergoing shoulder surgery in July.
"Listen, Tony's obviously a huge part of our team, but you have to manage the expectations," said captain Steven Stamkos. "He hasn't played in a really long time. From someone who knows long layoffs, it takes you a while to get adjusted. Sometimes the first game is great, because the adrenaline is pumping. It's the next couple that are tough."
Jon Cooper expects timing may be an issue, but still expects Cirelli to make an impact.
"When work ethic is your No. 1 asset, regardless of not playing in a while, that's something you carry with you," the Lightning coach said. "He is energy, tenacious, like, all those things that maybe aren't necessarily your hand skills."
Cirelli skated between Ross Colton and Vladislav Namestnikov on Saturday. Corey Perry, who will dress in regular season game No. 1,200, moved down to the fourth line.
"It just slots everybody in differently for them," said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. "It gives them another reliable centre so it changes things quite a bit. I'm sure they're happy to have him back."
Cirelli finished fifth in Selke Trophy voting last season.
With a point in Tampa, Marner will establish a new franchise record streak.
"I don't see an ending for it with how good he's playing right now," Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin said. "We all hope he's going to get it."
Marner has been a big help to Toronto's injury-ravaged defence when it comes to breaking the puck out. Sandin banked a pass to Marner, who was skating up ice with speed through the neutral zone, during Monday's game in Detroit. Marner actually used his arm to gesture where he wanted the 22-year-old to place the puck.
"He's just a creative player and a smart player," said Sandin. "We were talking about their D being pretty aggressive and pretty tight on our forwards so just tried to make that play and obviously helps when he's pointing where he wants you to put the puck."
All over the ice Marner is making plays – big and small – to help the Leafs string together wins.
"He's been phenomenal," said gritty winger Wayne Simmonds. "He's driving this team right now and not only offensively, but every other part of his game has been unbelievable too."
Asked about Marner, who leads the Leafs with 29 points, Cooper is quick to point out Auston Matthews is right behind with 27 points. John Tavares has 26 points and William Nylander has 25.
"There's a dynamic group up there between Mitch and Auston and Willie, and you can't sleep on Tavares," Cooper said. "What a year he's having. Fabulous players. I'm glad they're in our division because you get to watch them a little bit more than normal. Not the most fun to play against. I love when you get match-ups like this because you have some of the best players of all our generations here and you get to watch them all on one sheet of ice. Plus, add in the playoff rivalry, and these are great games to be a part of."
Stamkos owns the Lightning franchise record for longest point streak. He went 18 straight with a point during the 2009-10 season.
"I remember it like it was yesterday because my sticks got stolen after the game at the Toronto airport by Toronto security and I didn't get a point the next game," the Markham, Ont. native said with a smile. "I remember that pretty clear. Yeah, Marty St. Louis' and I's sticks went missing after the flight. We went to Washington the next game and we were both on really good streaks and there were a few [sticks] I had left in the bag but not the ones that I was playing with. I'm not sure that happens anymore, but it certainly had happened in the past depending on which airports you go to, especially the ones where they love hockey."
"It's pretty funny," Simmonds said. "I could see someone doing that in Toronto."
As for Marner?
"He better make sure his sticks are in his stall tonight," Stamkos quipped. "So tough to be that consistent in this league ... An elite player in this league and we're going to have our hands full."
Stamkos, who produced his 1,000th career point on Thursday, will be honoured in a pre-game ceremony.
"It will be special," the 32-year-old said. "Kind of funny how the last couple milestones have worked out. Passing Marty [on the all-time franchise points list] was against Toronto, this one is a little ceremony before [a game against] Toronto. It just means a lot more friends will be watching the game because they watch the Leafs instead of us so they'll get to see it."
Stamkos actually picked up his first career point in Toronto way back on Oct. 28, 2008.
"You couldn't have written a better script," said Hedman, "against his hometown team and on home ice, it's going to be an unbelievable night."
Stamkos will have his parents in the house along with many, many others.
"Too many to count," he said. "A lot of ticket requests today."
Stamkos is the only player in Lightning history to reach the four-digit club.
"It is important to me that I've done it with one franchise. 'Loyal' is a big word I use," he said. "I have seen some really tough times, but to be able to achieve your ultimate dream and sticking it out through some of those tough times, to me, it's all worth it."
Stamkos leads the Lightning with 13 goals in 23 games this season.
"The shot is very dangerous," said Keefe. "The shot usually comes at the end of sequences. He probably doesn't get enough credit for how competitive he is and how physical he is and all those types of things. He's, over the last number of years, really become a very complete player in terms of what he does off the puck and his competitiveness ... He seems to have really found another level to his game the last couple seasons."
Stamkos has scored 22 goals in 45 regular season games against Toronto.
The Leafs are playing in Tampa for the first time since the Game 6 overtime heartbreaker in May. Tavares scored twice late in the second period as Toronto grabbed a 3-2 lead. The Leafs were 12 minutes away from advancing when they ran into penalty trouble.
"We had nothing going on in the third and then the two high sticks," Cooper recalled. "We can debate them all you want."
David Kampf and Alex Kerfoot both got whistled, which gave the Lightning an extended 5-on-3 advantage and opened the door for Nikita Kucherov to score the tying goal. Brayden Point scored late in the first overtime period to send the series back to Toronto.
"It was really unlucky for Kerfoot what happened and Kuch gets the goal to tie it," Cooper said. "Now, it's anyone's game. [Andrei] Vasilevskiy put on quite a performance in overtime to give us that chance and we were fortunate to score. We somehow found a way."
Was it Tampa's experience that got them through? Cooper insists it's more complicated than that.
"It's a game of breaks," the coach stressed. "For the Leafs to maybe not take those penalties, was that experience? I don't know. I think it was a little bit of probably some unfortunate circumstances that just happened. Experience comes down to, did someone turn over the puck in the bad part of the ice? Did panic set in at certain points? I don't think in Game 7 you can sit here and say there was panic. It was a 2-1 tight game."
The Lightning won it and went all the way back to the Stanley Cup final. This Leafs core, meanwhile, was forced to contemplate a sixth straight early exit.
"As we all know, the Leafs are fighting some ghosts of hockey past," Cooper said. "Eventually that is going to end. I wouldn't say a lack of experience was something that hurt them. Maybe it helped us ... In 2015, we had zero experience and made it all the way to the final, but then I truly believe we lost because of a lack of experience. We got out pro'd by the Chicago Blackhawks, a veteran team."
Cooper was happy to entertain a series of questions about the seven-game slugfest with the Leafs last May.
"I do remember the feeling after Game 7. Just that relief or exuberance. Like, there were so many emotions standing on the ice after we'd won. I do remember not feeling so good when Brayden Point went down [in Game 7]. I remember not feeling so great after the 5-0 shellacking in Game 1. I do remember feeling great about Nick Paul's [two-goal] performance in Game 7. There's a lot of things I reminder about that series. At the end of that series, I just remember it was two good hockey teams that went at it and if you played seven more games, it probably would have went seven more. It was that close. I'm just glad we're on top."
Down the hall, Keefe wasn't having any flashbacks.
"It's a new season," the Leafs coach said. "It's a new team. It's just another regular-season game. I don't think that sort of stuff goes from one season to the next … The playoffs haven't been on my mind."
Projected Leafs lineup for Saturday's game:
Bunting - Matthews - Nylander
Robertson - Tavares - Marner
Kerfoot - Kampf - Engvall
Aston-Reese - Holmberg - Simmonds
Giordano - Holl
Sandin - Liljegren
Mete - Hollowell
Lines at Saturday's Lightning skate:
Hagel - Point - Kucherov
Stamkos - Paul - Killorn
Namestnikov - Cirelli - Colton
Maroon - Bellemare - Perry
Hedman - Sergachev
Cole - Cernak
Bogosian - Perbix