Here's how I remembered it: That first game last year, the one everyone thinks of as the four goal debut of Auston Matthews, it was all about Mitch Marner for me.
Of course, I recall the giddy hilarity of Mathews scoring goal after goal as his first three NHL shots on net all went in. The fourth pushed it over the edge into absurdity. I remembered the Senators being very bad; I remember the Leafs being not much better on the whole, but mostly I remember Mitch Marner blowing me away with shift after shift of amazing play.
So I watched the game again, to see if my memory served.
It’s now October 12, 2016, and the Leafs are in Ottawa to open the season.
The game begins with Milan Michalek, wearing #18, on Nazem Kadri's right wing. In a foreshadowing of things to come, Paul Romanuk accidentally calls him Ben Smith.
Marner’s first shift
Marner comes over the boards for the second shift of the game, taking the ice before Matthews and Nylander. His first NHL touch of the puck was a nervous little bat that went right onto the stick of a Senator. It bounced back and he dumped it in the corner.
While Tyler Bozak dives the net, Marner hangs around, keeps the puck alive while James van Riemsdyk heads for the LW side. Marner's pass isn't perfect, more an indication of dampened nerves, skill still rough yet, and an ability to read the ice and find the holes.
Van Riemsdyk ends up in the LW corner, gets hauled down, the puck bounces into the high slot, and it's Marner who gets it and keeps it alive.
The puck goes in behind the net, and Marner goes after it, keeps it alive with some really neat foot work, while Marc Methot tries to get the puck away from him. No sir, says Mitch.
Do you have a plant you keep forgetting to water and it never blooms? Give it to Mitch, he'll keep it alive.
For this inaugural run of the line that will go on to score most of the Leafs' five-on-five goals, they have Jake Gardiner and Connor Carrick in support. The Corsi was flowing in the right way. But hoo boy, was that a beautiful long offensive cycle while the Sens floundered around internally screaming, “Who the hell is this kid?”
A Carrick point shot deflects right onto a Senators’ stick and finally breaks up the cycle. Carrick broke his stick on the play, and Cody Ceci had a straight run to exit the zone, and ... guess what? Marner caught him, took the puck off of him from behind, kept it alive.
Marner is in the neutral zone, his momentum having carried him that far after he batted the puck back in. Bozak and van Riemsdyk pass it back and forth, laughing, one would hope, at the turn their lives have taken, while Marner and the D get back in the zone. Most of the Sens had blown the zone too, thinking they had turned it over. Nyah-uh.
Van Riemsdyk shoots it, and it's blocked by a skate. Marner pounces on it, does not panic shoot it, oh no, he carries it just a touch deeper, getting the angle. and he lets it go. The mythos of this game would be completely different if the tip by Bozak had worked. It went just wide.
Marner, meanwhile, is swinging around the net and Bozak is chugging for the bench, done like dinner. They are overdue for the debut of the man who made his name in this game.
Van Riemsdyk is working it hard in the corner after he denied the Sens a clean exit while Marner takes off for the bench, and Auston Matthews glides around behind the Sens net to start his first NHL shift. No pressure! Marner didn't set the bar too high. As we know, It turned out there is no "too high" setting for Matthews, but forget him and watch Marner’s first amazing shift.
During Matthews debut, Nikita Zaitsev makes a hell of a good defensive play in his first shift. And he needed to because the Matthews line let the Sens — Phaneuf! — walk right up the slot and get off a shot. It was all here in this game, with the gift of hindsight, everything right and wrong with the Leafs.
After a fourth line shift, Kadri takes a turn and gives the puck away in the offensive zone before he goes off to complete the shift change.
Shift number two
Bozak's line are back with a neutral zone start, but without the puck. It's a sloppy change — Kadri doesn't hurry, and the full set of guys are not pressuring the puck right away. Luckily this is the Sens in the first game of the year, and their line change is worse.
Cody Ceci has the puck along the boards, and it's Marner who is on him first, hassling him for it and forcing him to dump it in so hard it rings around almost to the Leafs bench.
Bozak is right on the puck, gets it when the Sens should have had it — they look so offensively lathargic here — and he passes it to Marner, who is out in the wide open spaces, ready to fly.
Marner responds to a little pressure with a looping curve back around into the defensive zone which seems a touch odd, the pass is there to van Riemsdyk, but it’s a good, conservative play that takes away the risk of a turnover. Marner just goes for a skate, dekes around all the Sens, carries the puck in clean and dumps it in behind the net.
No one is in position to pick it up who isn’t wearing red, and the Leafs fail to control it, not even with a good try from Rielly and Marner himself who immediately warps over to the blueline to try to keep it alive. Marner looks a little unsure, a little kid-like, or as if he is missing his boys from London who know his moves and would have been there to get that puck.
The result is a fairly classic Bozak line play. The Sens drive hard with the puck, the Leafs D back up fast, and Bozak and van Riemsdyk chug along trying to catch up after being deep in the offensive zone.
As Turris is driving with the puck, he's got to get through Martin Marincin at the blueline. The puck has bounced away from Turris’s stick and is deeper than either of them, loose, but too far away from Rielly, who'd backed up faster. In trying to deny Turris the entry, Marincin turns around, so his back is to Turris, and all Turris has to do is step around him.
Rielly has his eye on the puck, but he's the lone D back. What Freddie Andersen is thinking right now must be fascinating as he watches that come at him.
All that nonsense with Turris served to let Mark Stone drive hard for the puck. Rielly tries to dive and slide to block the pass, but Stone's 8-yard stick is well beyond Rielly's useless body, and okay, this story is about Marner, not the Leafs D in their early, roughest outings, where the hell is he?
By the time Stone is passing the puck to Mike Hoffman who is right in the slot, van Riemsdyk is on Hoffman, like he should be. Bozak is tooling around watching, like he does, and holy crap, that's not Marincin back in the fray deep in the slot riding Turris like he needs an extra sweater, that's Marner. Was Marincin beamed back to his planet? I'm not sure. There's four Leafs in the D zone and a fifth never appears.
The Leafs clear the puck, but Bozak loses it to Erik Karlsson, and they have to drop back again. Marner is the deepest forward defensively, but it's Matt Hunwick on the boards, who loses the battle for the puck. After a couple of bloop passes, Freddie makes the save.
Marner was deep in the zone defending for this shift. He showed willing, he is always willing, but he couldn't one-man the puck out of the zone. Trying isn’t succeeding at defensive play, but it beats watching.
The next fourth line shift sees Hunwick hurt and he leaves the game.
Shift number three
Bozak’s line starts in the neutral zone for the third time as Kadri's line has just lost control after a bit of an offensive cycle. The Leafs regroup in the defensive zone, and Marner dances up to the offensive blueline expectantly. Bozak loses the puck in a vivid example of why he's not a centre you rely on south of the red line. He just loses it in his own feet.
Rielly bails them out, the turgid Sens offence helps, and they get the puck out of their zone again. The pass is snapped over to Marner at the red line, and that's more like it.
I think it's a fair criticism that Marner doesn't shoot enough, but on this play he comes across the blueline, brakes, almost makes the Sens D fall down, he does it so fast, and then he sure looks like a dumb rookie kid gawping around trying to find the pass. Nope, he shoots it right on net from the spot Gardiner favours.
The rebound bounces right straight out, and van Riemsdyk is inches short of getting it and getting a shot. If, if, if. This fairy tale could have gone so differently and have a totally different star if some of these chances had bounced the right way.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau is not fooled by the dumb rookie act; he saw that shot coming, and he scoops up the puck, does not lose it to Marner, although Marner tries to take it. Pageau roars off down the ice. Possession ends up back with the Leafs, thanks to Gardiner, and he dishes to Bozak who hands it off to Zaitsev who sends a pass straight up the wide open ice to the man already with the foot down on the gas and moving through the neutral zone. Guess who?
Marner gets the puck on his stick at the crest on the helmet of that centurian the Sens think is a Senator. He's got two Sens about even with him, but he's been driving since before the Leafs blueline, and it's Phaneuf who stays with him, just, sort of, and digs around with his stick enough, that the shot Marner gets isn't much of one. Craig Anderson makes the save. If, if, if.
Seconds later, Matthews gets his first NHL goal, and there is seriously a lot of hugging. It's adorable when the commentary talks about a first-overall pick scoring "a" goal in his first game.
Shift number four
The Bozak line starts another shift in the neutral zone while the broadcast is busy showing the bench, so we'll just say the puck gets dumped out of the D-zone, and the forwards give chase. Van Riemsdyk and Bozak are pressuring hard in the LW corner and Marner, well, he's cruising in the high to medium slot, waiting for the patterns of the universe to unfold favourably for him.
The play swings down to the Leafs zone, but Marner is staying high, as the Leafs have no trouble getting control. They pass the puck up, and he's right at the Sens blueline, ready to move down the left wing side. He slides in, he shoots, and ... Ping! That sound, that horrible sound. Marner had Anderson beat clean, and this was another ‘if only’ moment.
This is the ten minute mark of the first period, in case you've forgotten what this game was like.
At this point Mike Babcock starts rolling Matthews' line after Kadri's and before Bozak's.
Shift number five
The Bozak line comes out as Gardiner is backing up with the puck into the defensive zone. It’s not the crispest line change ever. The defence is deep in the corner, and with a little help from Bozak, the puck pops out, and there's Marner already moving right to where it will be.
A little chip pass from Marner, and we're away with van Riemsdyk carrying it, while Marner drives the net. Van Riemsdyk passes to Marner, and it outdistances the slower Sens, even with their nine-yard sticks. Marner is once again in the slot, moving at high speed, nothing between him and Anderson but ice, and two Sens harrying him from behind. He can't get a great shot off; his speed is too much for him. Anderson stops him.
The puck bounces around towards the blueline, and Marner keeps it alive, but the Sens get possession and move deep with it. They get a chance off one of Zaitsev's not so good plays, and now we have our heroes right where we don't want them.
The play shakes out with Zaitsev and Gardiner with Marner and Bozak lined up like a PK box, while van Riemsdyk is off on the half boards where he ended up. I know one of these guys plays PK. And he's the Russian who hasn't got one clue what the hell this team is even doing. Bozak played PK all game, and wasn't very good at it. He hadn't had any shorthanded time for a couple of years, and he was likely just out there to win the faceoffs.
The Sens get the puck to Karlsson, so who cares who is where defending? Karlsson puts it in the net from the point with a little help from van Riemsdyk's inadvertent redirect while trying to block the shot.
Matthews scores again on his next shift.
Shift number six and the power play
Bozak and friends have to follow the Matthews show. They get some offensive zone time, end up back in the defensive zone but draw a penalty.
The first power play unit is Matthews, Nylander, Zaitsev, Komvarov and Michlek. The second is Marner, van Riemsdyk, Bozak, Gardiner and Kadri.
With the second unit out, the Leafs lose control of the puck at the offensive blue line, and the race is on to prevent a breakaway from the team that scored 17 shorties the year before. Van Riemsdyk gets there, but it's Marner playing D on the puck-carrying Turris. Turris can't hope to outskate him.
They stop Turris, get the puck, turn it around and get set up, and Marner gets a good chance that Anderson stops.
This game roared by so fast, so much happened, that we didn't even have time to marvel that Matthews, Nylander and Marner were right out there on the power play in their first game. What team does that?
That was the first period of the first game of the brand new Maple Leafs. Are you not entertained? Can you imagine if one of those Marner rush chances or the Bozak tip had worked out? How many points could Marner have had?
Second and Third period
The second period of this game tightened up considerably. The Sens started to get their defensive act together a little, and for the rest of the game Marner had Pageau's line to contend with most often. In the third period, the Leafs started to dominate the play more.
Twice Gardiner passes diagonally across the neutral zone from the Leafs blueline to Marner waiting on the Sens’ line, and that shouldn't work, but it did. They generated scoring chances both times. Most of the time when Bozak's line was on the ice there were scoring chances, and there were also defensive miscues of astonishing levels of badness. One of those miscues allowed another Sens goal.
By the third period, it was obvious that Marner was the key to the Bozak line executing zone exits, getting through the neutral zone and getting to the offensive zone. If Bozak tried to carry the puck, it went bad fast. If van Riemsdyk had it, it worked as long as Marner was streaking ahead for a pass. If Marner was in charge of the puck, all went according to his plan.
Bozak’s line were like and unlike the Matthews line right from the start. All six of them played in tight to the net, in what would become the team’s hallmark offensive style. They had a man below the goal line all the time. They passed and controlled the puck well. Bozak's crew lost the puck to the Sens a little more easily, but not by a lot.
But the Matthews line had a single man in charge out of the gate with two support players who were very clear on their roles and excelled at them. From the first four goals of his career, Matthews was running the show, but his wingers were in there with him where he expected them to be.
Bozak's line needed the winger, Marner, to be in charge. My memory says that a few games into the season, Bozak, who is very good at reading the play offensively, figured that out just fine. Their goal total speaks for how well they executed as a group.
Babcock faced a dilemma in this game that he faced all year. With a tie late in the game, and the scoring chance generators need to go on the ice, but they can hurt you as well as save you. The game was almost won for the Sens when a bad neutral zone pass from Bozak got picked off on the way to van Riemsdyk.
Bozak’s line is now and was then very dependant on the skill of their defenders to get out of the defensive zone, but with the right neutral zone tactics, they can absolutely get in the offensive zone with speed and dominate.
The Senators kept the game tied with a weak offence, and survived their own defensive failures. They did that because the Leafs' defensive lapses were much worse. The OT play that Matthews takes the blame for, rightly so, was only one of many bad moments from the whole team. It was the killing blow, but the team had already allowed the Sens to get too many goals on too few chances.
Yes, it was Matthews' game, good and bad, but a bounce or two the other way, and our fairy tale would be very different. Memory did serve. Marner was great in this game, particularly in the first period. All his weaknesses were there to see as well, but his ability to go to where the puck will be, to carry it through the neutral zone, and above all, to keep it alive and generate scoring chances are elite.
A few days later, this happened:
And it looks so much like that one chance in the opener, although he controls the puck better, it just makes me think what if again. How be he gets four in the first game this year as compensation?
You’re not busy, are you? Have Marner’s first 10 goals. This is even more fun.