TORONTO — Mitch Marner blocked one shot off his leg.
As he crumpled to the ice in pain, the winger usually known more for his speed and skill found himself nose-to-nose with another David Pastrnak one-timer that could have gone anywhere — including off his face.
Marner didn’t flinch.
The blast wound up hitting another body part a second before the final buzzer sounded in Toronto’s 3-2 victory over the Boston Bruins in Game 3 as the Maple Leafs grabbed 2-1 lead in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal.
“There’s dentists for a reason,” Marner said after Tuesday’s practice. “Lucky enough it didn’t hit me in the face.”
For the 21-year-old, it was all about desperation.
“Just tried to starfish on him and take up as much (room) as I could,” added Marner, who was mobbed by teammates spilling off the bench in celebration. “I was so close I didn’t think (the shot) was really going to get up too much. Just kind of sprawled my arms out.”
Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin, a Stanley Cup champion with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014, said before the playoffs that the team wanting it more in a series usually ends up winning.
Marner provided Exhibit A on Monday night inside a raucous Scotiabank Arena.
“Pretty good example of it right there,” Muzzin said. “Just a guy doing whatever it takes to keep the puck out of the net. We need everyone with that mentality and that mindset.
“It was awesome to see.”
It was also not something usually expected from an offensively gifted player like Marner, who set career-highs in goals (26), assists (68) and points (94) during the regular season. He picked up where he left off in last year’s playoffs, when he had seven points in seven games against the Bruins, in the opener of the rematch on Thursday with two goals in Toronto’s 4-1 win.
Like most of his teammates, Marner was mostly quiet as Boston pushed back in Game 2, but along with linemates John Tavares and Zach Hyman, and the defence pair of Muzzin and Nikita Zaitsev, he’s been at the forefront of mostly limiting the Bruins’ top line of Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron at 5-on-5.
Marner even mixed it up with Marchand, the Bruins’ leading scorer and resident superpest, on a couple of occasions Monday.
“They’re a challenge to go up against. They bring a lot to the table,” Marner said of his defensive responsibilities in the series. “It’s making sure we’re being smart with the puck.”
Pastrnak, Marchand and Bergeron combined for 30 points in Boston’s seven-game victory over Toronto last spring, but only have six at even strength so far in this series —including just two at 5-on-5.
The Leafs have held the Bruins’ big guns to 40 shots attempts at even strength, with just 17 having hit the target.
“You’re aware of what they do well, and what makes them unique as a line,” said Tavares, who is 53 per cent against Bergeron on faceoffs, and 59 per cent overall in the series. “You can’t take a second off.”
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said he tasked that five-man unit with the assignment for a number of reasons.
“They play hard,” he said. “Muzz can really move the puck and (Zaitsev), we think, closes faster than anybody on our team.
“Then obviously, each guy up front has a different skillset.”
Marner, whose team has a chance to go up 3-1 in the series in Game 4 at home on Wednesday, made a name for himself in the league over his first two seasons with darting moves and slick setups.
But he at times found himself on the fourth line, with Babcock wanting more out of the player.
“The first two years, I was, I think, a little bit cheating more for offence, trying to get more odd-man rushes,” said Marner, now also a key penalty killer. “I’m realizing that … you’ve got to stop people in your own zone.
“You’ll get your chances offensively from that.”
One of the big selling points for Tavares when he signed with the Leafs was the chance to play with Marner, who is set to become a restricted free agent July 1 and is in line for a massive payday.
Tavares knew he was good, just maybe not this good.
“To do what he did his first couple of years with the amount of spotlight that’s been on him is pretty impressive,” said the 28-year-old. “But once you’re around him every day and playing with him game in, game out, there’s always times that he wows you.”
And perhaps none more so far in this series than those put-your-body-on-the-line shot blocks to close out Game 3.
Notes: Leafs centre Nazem Kadri, who was suspended for the rest of the series by the NHL for his cross-check to the head of Bruins winger Jake DeBrusk in Game 2, practised with his teammates, but was not made available to the media. The team said Kadri won’t speak with reporters until he’s eligible to return to the lineup. … Game 5 goes Friday in Boston. Game 6, if necessary, would be in Toronto on Sunday.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press