TSN SportsCentre Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Toronto Maple Leafs, who along with the Detroit Red Wings, had an optional skate at Little Caesars Arena on Monday.
Mitch Marner has his dog's initial – Z for Zeus – written on his gloves and sticks.
"I don't have any kids and people are probably going to think I'm crazy but, yeah, it's my guy," the 25-year-old winger said with a laugh. "He doesn't have a damn clue what I do for a living. He doesn't have a damn clue what anyone thinks about me. He just loves me for being his dad and buzzing around outdoors with him. So, that's why I put him on there, for the little remembrance to have fun."
Marner is having a lot of fun these days. He rides a career-best 16-game point streak into Detroit for Monday's date with the Red Wings. His chocolate lab is an inspiration.
"Just try and do what he does out there at the field," Marner said. "Just buzz around and chase down the [puck] and be a big force."
Marner's ability to chase down the puck is a big part of his game.
"What he can do on the forecheck isn't talked about enough," said linemate John Tavares. "You always think of forechecking as [about] being really big and physical and strong and heavy on the puck and he just does it with a great stick and understanding how to use his skill set to make it difficult for the opponent."
Marner's work on the forecheck led to Tavares' goal on Wednesday in New Jersey. He also hounded Penguins defenceman Kris Letang into a turnover, which led directly to another goal on Saturday night in Pittsburgh.
"I just try and read the play and listen out there to hear what d-men are saying," Marner explained. "Try to watch their eyes are and see where their next option is and play off of that. Try and use my instincts to read it."
Marner isn't the biggest guy [6-foot, 181 pounds] so he can also catch defencemen off guard with a check here and there.
"Sometimes you can switch it up and go in there and try and get body first and then get puck," he said. "So, just trying to switch things up and use my instincts."
"He has a knack for knowing which direction the defenceman wants to bump the puck or skate the puck," said defenceman Justin Holl. "He's smart instinctively like that."
"He doesn't always go full speed," noted defenceman Timothy Liljegren, "but he's good at reading what the D is going to do."
Marner has scored in consecutive games for the first time this season. He fired a season-high eight shots on net on Saturday.
"You get in a rhythm when you're an elite player like that and you just feel like every shift you're going to make a difference," coach Sheldon Keefe observed. "He's just feeling it. He's feeling it with the puck, without the puck and with his defending. I mean, some of his best plays are coming off his reads and creating high-end chances for us."
Marner's point streak is the longest in the NHL this season. He is two games away from tying Darryl Sittler (1977-78) and Eddie Olczyk (1989-90) for the franchise record.
"He's been leading the charge," said Auston Matthews. "He's playing incredible for us. Both sides of the puck too. It's been fun to watch."
Marner showed off his smarts on his first shift against the Penguins on Saturday. He was on the way to the bench for a line change when he noticed all the Penguins doing the same thing while Matthews had control of the puck. Marner stayed on. Matthews quickly fed him for a breakaway and the game's opening goal.
If Marner is in on Toronto's first goal on Monday, he will become the first player in franchise history to factor on the Leafs opening goal in seven consecutive contests.
"We've done a good job of not really forcing too many things at the start of games," Marner said. "We're not afraid to get it in and get our forecheck going early and it's been working the last couple games."
"The focus has been establishing the team game," said Keefe, "and making sure that we're not putting ourselves in a bad spot and see if the other team's going to make a mistake first and then, when they do, be ready to capitalize on it."
What does Moritz Seider think of Marner's streak?
"It's remarkable, but we don't need to worry about any guys on the other team," the Red Wings defenceman boasted. "We can match any of their skill. I'm pretty confident about that. It will be a cool matchup tonight."
The Wings have won four straight games and sit just behind the Leafs in the Atlantic Division. Detroit is off to its best 20-game start (11-5-4) since 2010-11.
"If we just look at our standings, we don't need to hide anywhere," Seider, the reigning Calder Trophy winner, pointed out. "We've taken a lot of good strides forward. I'm really confident in the locker room."
Seider is impressing Derek Lalonde.
"You don't see risk in his game," the new Red Wings coach said. "You don't see those egregious turnovers. I don't think he gets enough credit for how he eats pucks, blocks pucks and how he wins battles. That's what ultimately is going to help us win as a group."
Seider and veteran partner Ben Chiarot will be leaned on to neutralize Toronto's top talent.
"Two big boys that like to use their body and try to be physical on you," said Marner. "For us, it's making sure we're going to try and make them skate. We got to try and make them both use their skating. We got to make it hard on them. They're going to play a lot of minutes, so you got to try and make them move, try and make them exhaust themselves out there."
The Wings lost all four games to the Leafs last season. Detroit has dropped seven straight overall against Toronto.
The Leafs have won the first three games of their road trip despite playing without defencemen Morgan Rielly (knee), T.J. Brodie (oblique) and Jake Muzzin (cervical spine). Jordie Benn has missed the last two games with an upper-body injury.
"What I've been most impressed with watching Toronto of late is their ability to play the right way," said Lalonde. "It's very impressive what they're doing with the D core that they've lost. They're committed to play the right way."
"Our team game is really supporting everybody," said Keefe. "Everybody is doing better. When guys leave the lineup, your team game should be able to take care of your team."
Toronto's second defence pair now features a 22-year-old, Rasmus Sandin, with a 23-year-old, Liljegren. Both players set career highs in playing time on Saturday.
"You stay warm, I'll tell you that," said Sandin after playing a team-high 22:59. "It's easier to relax a little bit and play more of your game. You get some confidence with ice time, so that helps. Me and Timothy are getting along well now on the ice."
Liljegren logged 22 minutes in Pittsburgh.
"We just talked about trying to play a simple game with good defence and take the opportunities on offence when they're there," Liljegren said
The Swedes have been facing tougher opposition and, at one point on Saturday, Liljegren got a shove from an agitated Sidney Crosby.
"I don't know why he was mad at me," Liljegren said with a grin. "Yeah, it was fun."
Must be doing something right?
"I guess so," he said. "Just try and play good defence. Maybe I was successful against him. I don't know."
Pontus Holmberg is making a seamless transition to the NHL.
"I can’t find this guy making a mistake," marvelled Keefe. "He is incredibly smart. Defensively, he is always in the right spot. He doesn't even have a full grasp of the language here yet or the league and yet he is picking up our system, our structure and the things we are asking him to do. He is near perfect."
Holmberg has scored in two of the last three games. He only had one goal in nine games in the American Hockey League this season.
"When you're that smart, like he is, sometimes it's easier to play in the NHL level because you play with smart players," noted Sandin.
The 23-year-old centre has already proven he can handle big stages. Just a couple years ago he was the MVP of the Swedish Hockey League playoffs en route to a title with Vaxjo.
"It seems like he's always above his check," gushed Marner. "Seems annoying out there, to be honest. He's above people. He's in pockets. He's getting skin on people. He's done a great job of finding little holes in the D-zone to get the puck in his hands and make plays out of our D-zone. He's done a great job, just overall, finding soft spots in the O-zone as well. It’s been great to see."
Who received the player-of-the-game belt from Matt Murray on Saturday night?
"Big Tone," Marner revealed. "Obviously, a great game by him and another guy who led by example all night. He's doing a lot of great things for us, winning a lot of battles and helping us out."
Matthews, nicknamed "Tony," picked up three points against the Penguins, including a late goal to seal the win.
"Auston has been playing some really good hockey for us and has really helped lead the way for us defensively with a lot of the things he has been doing," noted Keefe. "He has been getting some assists and things like that, but to get the goal is very fitting to end the night."
It was the first time Matthews received the team's wrestling belt – a gift from WWE's Edge – this season.
Lines at Monday's morning skate:
Bunting - Matthews - Nylander
Jarnkrok - Tavares - Marner
Kerfoot - Holmberg - Engvall
Aston-Reese - Kampf - Malgin
Extras: Robertson, Simmonds
Giordano - Holl
Sandin - Liljegren
Mete - Hollowell