Sports

NHL PLAYOFFS

Leafs coach Mike Babcock wants to see more out of rookie Mitch Marner

By Michael Traikos, Postmedia Network

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Mike Babcock trusts that Mitch Marner will be fine.

It’s just that things aren’t going his way right now. That’s the playoffs, said the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach. There’s less space, less time with the puck, fewer chances to be creative.

“He’s got to dig in,” said Babcock. “Everything about guys who score and feed off having the puck, sometimes in the playoffs you never get the puck. So you’ve got to come to grips with that and then enjoy the touches you do have and work hard to get it back.

To hear Babcock talk about Marner’s so-called struggles, you would think the 19-year-old hadn’t scored in weeks — if not months. In reality, Marner had a goal in Game 1 and is tied for a team-leading four points in five games.

As Matt Martin, who has gone 18 games without a goal joked, “Everyone wants to talk about how much he’s struggling. I thought that was my problem.”

Indeed, Marner’s production — or lack thereof — is not the reason why the Leafs head into Game 6 against the Washington Capitals on Sunday trailing 3-2 in the best-of-seven series. In fact, he’s producing at a slightly better rate than he did in the regular season.

And yet, it’s hard not to expect more out of a player who scored 61 points this year and was a driving force behind Toronto’s success.

In a post-season where first-year players such as Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel and Toronto’s Auston Matthews have been outperforming seasoned veterans, it’s time for Marner to dominate. He needs to score. He needs to be a factor if the Leafs hope to force a Game 7.

For that to happen, he needs to play more.

Marner averaged close to 17 minutes per game in the regular season, but was on the ice for less than 14 minutes in Game 4 and despite going to overtime in Game 5 logged just 14 minutes and 29 seconds.

That might explain why Marner has gone four games without a goal and had no points and no shots in Game 5. Then again, Marner hasn’t exactly earned any extra minutes.

“I mean it’s not easy to produce in the playoffs,” said Marner’s linemate, Tyler Bozak. “It’s a lot tighter, there’s less opportunities. He got a big goal for us early in the season to get us going. He’s had a few assists since then. I think he’s doing fine.”

In some ways, this is the natural learning curve of a first-year player undergoing the playoffs for the first time. What worked in the regular season often doesn’t work when the play gets chippier, the checking becomes tighter and the referees put away their whistles.

It’s not just Marner who’s finding it more difficult to score. Montreal’s Max Pacioretty had no goals and one assists heading into Game 6 against the New York Rangers on Saturday night, while the Chicago Blackhawks’ entire line-up shot blanks in a first-round sweep to the Nashville Predators.

“Listen, he’s a great player but it’s the time of year. It’s not easy for anyone to produce,” Martin said of Marner. “You look at the top players all around the league and it seems like — I thought I read an article this morning about how Montreal’s top players need to produce, how Chicago’s top players didn’t produce. It’s hard. It’s playoff hockey.

“It’s not just special teams all over the place. People are desperate and want to win the game. People are coming back that much harder and blocking shots. It’s just a hard time to put the puck into the back of the net.”

One of the challenges with Marner is not his size, but rather his style of play. He’s a creative player whose strength is his patience with the puck. He likes to play keep away and outwait opposing defencemen in order for passing and shooting lanes to open up. Those extra seconds are nowhere to be found these days, as forwards who normally floated in the regular season are suddenly more aggressive on the backcheck.

The reason why Toronto’s rookie line of Matthews, William Nylander and Zach Hyman have been so successful — five goals and 11 points in five games — is that they are keeping it simple. They have cut out the fancy passes and gone back to no-frills hockey.

“We’re generating opportunities without making the hard play,” said Nylander. “For sure, the pace has picked up. There’s less space. Some plays you’d make then you’re probably not going to make in the playoffs.”

It’s something that Babcock is confident that Marner will eventually figure it out. The question is whether it will come in time before the season ends.

“No one loves hockey more than Mitch Marner and no one’s more competitive more than Mitch,” said Babcock. “He’ll be great (on Sunday). Everything about Mitchy, he’s a big moment guy. He’ll find it.”

ROOKIES SHINE IN PLAYOFFS, TOO

It’s a young man’s game. That was true in a regular season where Auston Matthews tied for second in the Rocket Richard Trophy race with 40 goals and Patrik Laine finished in the top-30 in scoring with 36 goals and 64 points.

But if you thought the rookies were impressive in the regular season, take a look at how they have performed in the playoffs.

From Matthews and Charlie McAvoy to Jake Guentzel and Kevin Fiala, here are five first-year players who are outperforming seasoned vets:

Auston Matthews, Toronto

The Leafs centre went the first two games against Washington without a point, but since then has been on fire with goals in each of the last three games. He also leads Toronto forward in ice time.

Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh

As a kid, he was the stick boy for the University of Minnesota when Phil Kessel played there. Now, he’s using his stick to score a playoff-leading five goals, including a hat trick and two game-winners.

Charlie McAvoy, Boston

McAvoy made his NHL debut in Game 1 of the playoffs. But if he was nervous, it didn’t show. The 19-year-old defenceman has one assist and is second on the Bruins in ice time.

Shea Theodore, Anaheim

It was Theodore who erased a four-goal deficit and forced overtime with two goals in Game 3 against the Flames. He has five points in four games. That’s four fewer than the defenceman scored all year.

Kevin Fiala, Nashville

It took three years for the 11th overall pick from 2014 to crack the Predators lineup on a full-time basis. But the wait was worth it. Fiala, who has two goals, scored the overtime winner in Game 3 against the Blackhawks.

mtraikos@postmedia.com

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