Mitchell Marner has been seeing a lot of ice these days.
Last night, he played on the penalty kill, which turned into 4-on-4, which then turned into a 5-on-4 power play, all without leaving the ice once. Sure, there were a few stoppages of play, and yes, each special teams situation was abbreviated by the next penalty call, but he was still on the ice for easily four minutes continuously. That's a lot of skating, especially while killing a penalty and playing 4-on-4.
Asked whether or not all the playing time was getting to his legs, however, he was quick to say no. "Not really. ... We're in pretty good condition, so we weren't too bad out there. But yeah, we try to keep our shifts as short as possible."
Who the "we" is in that quote is something of a mystery – four minute shifts don't usually count as "short". Dale Hunter is certainly happy to keep rolling out his big guns, and Marner himself appears quite content to play in every situation and as much as possible. For now, this strategy is working for the Knights, who are now up 2-0 on the Niagara Ice Dogs in the OHL finals.
Not even over the course of an extended playoff run does Marner feel that he or his linemates are showing any wear and tear. "Yeah, no, not really. Our line is staying healthy, knock on wood, hopefully it [stays] that way, but we're playing well right now, we just have to keep it up."
It was only with last night's game completely out of reach for Niagara at 6-1 in the third period that Hunter decided to sit the triumvirate of Matthew Tkachuk, Christian Dvorak, and Marner. In their absence, Hunter put J.J. Piccinich and his linemates Owen MacDonald and Chandler Yakimowicz to work, grinding down Niagara's top unit to close out the game.
"It felt good, it's something we're used to," Piccinich explains of his shut-down efforts. "We've been playing against most of the other teams' top lines, so it was nothing new for us, we just did what we've been doing all playoffs."
Unlike Marner, Piccinich was ready to admit some fatigue as his line played a lot late in the game. "Yeah, everyone's feeling it, you know? But you can battle through it."
Part of what makes the shutdown role so tough on the legs is that there is a lot of work to do down low covering the likes of Josh Ho-Sang. "Yeah, we're making sure we denying any passes up to their D-men. We want to keep the play down low and in the corners so they can't generate a lot of offence [from the point]."
Despite the hard skating and physical toll that this style of play exacts on the body, Piccinich is keen to meet the challenge. "Our line thrives off of that. Ho-Sang is a dangerous player, and we have fun trying to stop him and create offence against him."
Here's hoping the Marlies benefit from Piccinich's hard work shutting down opponents next year in the AHL.