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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised on Monday afternoon at the Saddledome in Calgary ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Flames.

Instead of their usual pre-game meeting, Toronto's players were shown a video about George Armstrong on Sunday. The former Leafs captain, who led the franchise to four Stanley Cup titles in the 1960s, had passed away earlier in the day.

"What he gave every single night wearing this jersey was awesome," said alternate captain Mitch Marner. "No matter who he was playing against, you know, he was ready to play. It was never easy to go against him. What he did for the winning culture of this city was unbelievable."

As a local kid, who grew up bleeding blue and white, it means a lot to Marner to be able to help write the next chapter in franchise history. And so far this season the dynamic winger is looking like a guy who may be destined to have a significant place in Leafs lore.

"He's just got a lot of jump," observed defenceman Morgan Rielly. "It just looks like he's flying. I know he's pretty motivated and he's in a good place right now. He's just having fun with it and it's great to be around him at the rink when he's feeling like that."

"Well, I think I'm always motivated," Marner said. "I always want to be doing better. That's kind of the motto of our team. Everyone wants to be better."

But after a scintillating 2018-19 season that saw him rack up 94 points in 82 games, Marner wasn't quite the same explosive guy last year. He finished with 67 points in 59 games before adding four assists in five playoff games. Perhaps he was slowed by a high ankle sprain that cost him four weeks at the start of the season or maybe some bad vibes carried over from the contract negotiations that had spilled into the start of training camp. Whatever it was, it all seems like ancient history now.

Marner is tied for the National Hockey League scoring lead with 10 points in seven games this season. He has at least one point in all five Leafs wins.

"Our line's done a great job of every night coming in and playing hard and working together as a unit and when that goes well stuff's going to create, stuff's going to happen," said Marner.

 

Sunday afternoon was an example of that as the Leafs weren't at their best, but benefited from some good bounces and hard work. Jake Muzzin opened the scoring when his shot deflected off Calgary's Dominik Simon and in. It was Marner, who had turned a one-on-three rush into an easy zone entry moments earlier.

The assist was Marner's 300th NHL point in his 307th career game. He's the third-fastest player to reach that milestone in franchise history behind only Charlie Conacher (294 games) and Syl Apps (284).

Marner's second point of Sunday's game, also an assist, came on the power play. He also had a power-play helper on Friday night setting up John Tavares for the game winner against Edmonton. Despite being the last man back in a tied game, Marner made a nice move to throw off Hart Trophy winner Leon Draisaitl​ and serve up a perfect shot for Tavares to tip home. 

"As soon as I see Mitchy with the puck, I just try to have good instincts on where to go, because he's always got such a good sense of the play two, three steps ahead," Tavares told TSN. "Even on plays like that, it's not a direct pass, but he knows just how to feather it in there with the right pace, with the right timing and make it easy for me."

Marner, still only 23-years-old, also plays a key role on Toronto's top penalty kill unit.

"He likes being out there as much as he can so he likes being on the PK," noted Rielly. "I think he's extremely valuable in that area​."

Marner is logging just over 24 minutes a night this season to lead all NHL forwards.

Defenceman Zach Bogosian, a new teammate, is quick to highlight Marner's defensive instincts.

"The way he reads the game both offensively and defensively is elite," Bogosian said. "Played against him a number of years and ... trying to move the puck up the ice, he made a lot of good reads defensively as well so he's the total package."

Marner wasn't sure how to answer when asked in which ways he's an improved player this season. He pointed to the team’s success and some fortunate bounces.

"I don't know if anything in particular is standing out that hasn't stood out in previous years," head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "I wouldn't say I'm surprised by anything, but he's been very good for us."

 

The Leafs hope Marner's magical baseline level may lead the franchise to lofty heights.

Armstrong is immortalized on Legends Row outside Scotiabank Arena as is Apps and Conacher. And Leafs president Brendan Shanahan thinks Marner has the potential to join them one day. 

“He's got an energy that the players all love. He laughs at himself. He's self-deprecating, but he's also very serious about his job and the pressure that he puts on himself," the team president told season-seat members in an interview with Leafs Nation Network’s Danielle Emanuele a couple weeks ago. "He just cares. He cares a lot. This is a guy that I hope plays his entire career in Toronto and if he does I have no doubt he will bring us success and I have no doubt that he's going to have a statue outside of the arena one day."

 

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Wayne Simmonds was the beneficiary of a Marner pass on Sunday as he picked up his first goal as a Leaf and 100th career power-play goal.

"We got two great units," said Simmonds, who serves as the net-front presence with the top group. "I don't think it matters which unit is on the ice at this moment. Both units are clicking really well. For me, it's pretty much status quo. It's just get in front of the net, get loose pucks and present myself as an option for the other guys."

The Leafs power play is clicking at 40.9 per cent on the season, which ranks third in the NHL. They have scored on the man advantage in all but one game.

But not everyone is satisfied.

"That's an area of our game that we need to take pride in," said Rielly, the quarterback on the top unit. "It's going to be important for us. When we watch the tape, it actually looks a little bit sloppy to me and I think we can improve. We take a lot of ownership in that and it's important we keep working on it. It’s a big part of our wins."

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Jack Campbell missed practice after sustaining an injury during Sunday's win.

"Jack wasn't available today so just got to continue to let things settle down there and get him evaluated to figure out what his situation might be moving forward," Keefe said. "I don't have an update there."

Campbell, who improved to 2-0-0 on the season, insisted he never considered leaving Sunday's game despite being in obvious discomfort in the final minute. He refused to discuss what was ailing him after the game. 

No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen has played well of late with a .938 save percentage in his last three starts, but Toronto's depth could become an issue with the condensed schedule this season. The club recently lost Aaron Dell on waivers to New Jersey. If Campbell misses time, Michael Hutchinson, who struggled as Toronto's No. 2 goalie last season, will be elevated to the backup job.

 

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Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk fell on Campbell during a scramble in the final minute on Sunday, which certainly didn't make the goalie feel any better. But the always-optimistic Campbell had only praise for Tkachuk when the dust settled.

"I didn't even look at him as like a menace out there," said Campbell, who had exchanged shoves with Tkachuk earlier in the game. "He's just a really good hockey player. Any time he's out there I'm always aware. He's really good in front of the net and setting up his teammates."

Campbell’s teammates, meanwhile, followed his lead on Monday opting not to take the bait when asked about Tkachuk's collision with their goalie.

"It doesn't matter what we think," said Marner, who played with Tkachuk in London of the Ontario Hockey League. "It's up to the refs to call penalties. We don't really care to comment on it to be honest.

Tkachuk, though, was happy to shoot back at online critics who raised the incident on Twitter and other social media.

"I live in that area," Tkachuk said. "I live in that crease area throughout the games and I'm just digging for a puck. I was battling with Brods [TJ Brodie] a little bit there and guys started coming in and just got knocked over and obviously had no intention of falling into him or anything like that. That's just a classic thing to try and accuse me of there."

The Flames peppered Campbell with 20 slot shots on Sunday with seven coming off the stick of Tkachuk, who scored on a deflection in front.

 

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Jason Spezza, 37, will sit out the rematch against the Flames.

"Our schedule being what it has to this point, it’s been busy and want to give Spezz a chance to take tomorrow off," Keefe explained.

Tuesday will be Toronto's eighth game in 14 days to start the season.

"At the same time it allows us to get a look at some of our other guys that we want to give some opportunity to play," Keefe said.

One of those guys is Joey Anderson, who was acquired from the Devils in the Andreas Johnsson trade in the off-season.

"He's got good energy, good legs, moves his feet, he's a smart player," Keefe said. "His situational awareness is very good. We think he had a really good camp with us ... in our scrimmages that we had and intra-squad games and practice sessions he's looked good. He's got a real good attitude, good energy about him and he'll be excited to go."

The 22-year-old has yet to make his Maple Leafs debut.

 

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Auston Matthews returned to the Leafs lineup on Sunday after missing one game with a hand injury. Is it something he'll have to monitor moving forward?

"A little bit," Matthews said after being credited with the game-winning goal against the Flames. "Will have to take care of it here the next couple weeks, but it feels better. I feel more than good enough to play and good enough to contribute and help the team."