Once again, the Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner was trending on social media, but it was for all the right reasons this time. On Tuesday night, Marner opened the scoring with a jaw-dropping goal, part of a 4-0 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights. It was by far the most outstanding performance thus far by Marner and his teammates this year and the best sign yet that the horrible start to the 2021-22 season may genuinely be behind this team.
Marner scored his second goal of the season, and it was one for the career highlight reel. Sheldon Keefe said, “That is the Mitch that we know and love, of course.” Not only was the goal spectacular, but his reaction was also reminiscent of the kid fans have watched grow up. Keefe added, “he is playing with confidence. He looks like he is free out there. When he is free, and the game is just flowing for him, he makes great things happen on both sides of the puck. That is three games in a row now that he has been terrific.”
Three games ago also marks the beginning of this winning streak. Marner’s slow start, one point in his first six games, seemed to be picking up where he left off during last May’s playoffs. When the season started, he was without Auston Matthews for the first three games. The duo was attached at the hip last season to become one of the best pairings in hockey. Marner appeared lost without Matthews, but it got worse when the reigning Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy winner returned. It was painfully obvious the two players had lost the connection. So Keefe shuffled the entire lineup and split up the pair.
Marner, Maple Leafs Adjusting to Changes
The first game after the lineup change, there were growing pains, but a 3-2 overtime win against the Chicago Blackhawks, Marner appeared to be getting his swagger back by the second game. After that, he showed more improvement during a 5-4 win over the Detroit Red Wings. But now he is firing on all cylinders.
Marner appeared much happier after this game, “Yeah, I definitely feel a lot better about my game. It’s just like I’ve been saying, mentally wise, it’s just focusing on myself, what I can do, the best I can do out there… it’s been a good couple of games here; I just got to make sure I keep going and just try and keep this mojo going.”
Observers Were Concerned For Marner
While he might be downplaying it with cliches and canned answers, analysts in the hockey world were beginning to voice serious concern over Marner’s play. For example, NHL Insider Elliotte Friedman thought the Amazon docu-series, All or Nothing, had impacted the 24-year-old at a deeper level. During a 32 Thoughts podcast, Friedman said, “I’ve seen Marner really struggling because he can’t make plays that he can make in his sleep; I’m just wondering if this is all part of it.”
Marner was also growing frustrated answering questions about his lack of goal scoring. All of this was on the heels of a hype-style video on Marner’s social media that included interesting lyrics to address the haters and the doubters.
Tavares and Marner Re-Connecting
Marner has been reunited with captain John Tavares on the second line. The two played together for the majority of the 2019-20 season. Tavares set up Marner’s highlight-reel goal with hard work along the wall, but he was amazed at Marner’s moves “It surprises you, but it doesn’t surprise you when you see who makes those plays. He’s obviously a special talent and obviously really fortunate to play with him and just to see him go to work every day.”
Despite the slow start, Tavares repeated that Marner has maintained his work ethic, “I thought he’s just continued to build his game and now get rewarded and do what he does, he just kind of lets the game come to him and has the puck a lot, finds the open man and obviously has some good finish around the net.”
Jack Campbell, fresh off of his fifth shutout of his career, seemed more excited for Marner. “I just loved their start and the way we played for the full 60 minutes. It gives you a lot of confidence when we start that way, when we get on the scoreboard early. Heck of a play by Mitch, and the team took off from there, it was great,” said Campbell.
Marner has become the new whipping boy of what has become an increasingly vicious fanbase. He has said he stays off social media, and I can only hope that is true given the nasty things tweeted about him. However, maybe someone could show him a few of the thousands of tweets cheering him on and reacting to his spectacular goal. Perhaps that will help continue his improving confidence. As the Maple Leafs host the back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, on Thursday, Marner will need it.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.