TORONTO — Mitchell Marner etches the letter Z on the palm of his gloves and the shaft of his stick as a reminder of the one who loves him without judgment, the one who plays carefree.
That would be his beloved chocolate Labrador, Zeus.
“I don’t have any kids, and people are probably going to think I’m crazy, but, yeah, it’s my guy,” Marner explained, en route to history.
“He doesn’t have a damn clue what I do for a living. He doesn’t have a damn clue what anyone thinks about me. He just loves me for being his dad and buzzing around outdoors with him. So, that’s why I put him on there — for the little remembrance to have fun.”
“Just try and do what he does out there at the field. Just buzz around and chase down the ball and be a big force.”
Fun fact: Chocolate Labs are the rarest breed of Labrador retriever. They are fun and loving and known for dominating the show ring.
Which is precisely what Zeus’s “dad” did on Wednesday night, rescuing the Toronto Maple Leafs’ rather sloppy and mild-tempered midweek 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks with a little bit of drama and a whole lot of joy.
Raised a Maple Leafs junkie in Toronto, Marner had been downplaying his race at the franchise’s record 18-game point streak, shared by Darryl Sittler and Eddie Olczyk.
But on the eve Marner would equal giants, it was clear he was pressing for his moment.
Marner’s family and friends — most of whom know not to discuss his work with him — flocked to the rink.
His coach flipped him to the wing of his most familiar centreman, Auston Matthews, for the final period and even called a timeout to extend the top unit’s power-play time with the score knotted at 1-1 late.
But clean scoring opportunities for Marner and his linemates were hard to come by.
“I was trying not to stress about it,” Marner said, watching the minutes tick down and opposing goalie, Aaron Dell, stand tall.
And then? A break. A gift from the big force that is the hockey gods.
Pierre Engvall slammed an Alexander Kerfoot rebound home with just 2:27 remaining, forcing the Sharks to empty their net and a space in the record book was there for the taking.
With his teammates spending half their energy hanging on to the late lead and the other half targeting Marner’s tape, the winger was granted not one, not two, but three attempts at the vacant cage.
On the first look, Marner oddly forced a puck to a covered Michael Bunting in the neutral zone.
“Because I’m a passer, you know,” said Marner, able to laugh in retrospect. “Dumb move… not some high IQ for sure.
“I can’t wait to talk to my father. He’s gonna be like, ‘What the hell are you doing on that pass on the first one?’ Big Mike, on the bench, couldn’t believe I tried to pass it to him, too. He was pissed at me, to be honest.”
Marner blew his second attempt wide and joked to Matt Murray afterward that he’d spend next practice peppering empty nets.
“You start to feel like maybe it’s not going to happen,” coach Sheldon Keefe admitted. “But he stayed with it and got it. It’s an important goal. I mean, I don’t want to have to defend a one-goal lead to the very end. Especially with 65 [Erik Karlsson] out there.”
So, when Kerfoot found a cheating Marner up the gut for yet another chance on no goalie, the magician made no mistake.
Marner shook his head in relief and called it an “ugly” way to get it done, 71 seconds before time expired.
“I’m so happy he got it, honestly. It was getting a little scary there for a second. Third time’s a charm, I guess,” said Matthews, who shared a laugh with his winger on the bench.
“A little bit of a sigh of relief. I mean, the first two tries, I was like, what are you doing? Just put it in the net and let’s go home. Let’s get this over with.”
Added winning goalie Ilya Samsonov: “I was little bit scared about record, but Mitchy scored. No more questions, yeah.”
When the goal scorer’s name was announced over the barn’s loudspeakers, a packed and happy Scotiabank Arena rose to its feet and cheered for the local boy done good.
“Honestly, that was really special. That meant a lot,” Marner said.
The record-setter thought about his family standing up, too, and how they were part of the ovation, the love. He thought about his “brother” Matthews and how last season it was Marner that was rooting on his teammate’s individual assault on Leafs history.
Maybe he thought about some of the bitter disappointments suffered on this same sheet, in this same town.
And surely, he thought of Zeus, the loyal dog emblazoned on his game-day socks and etched on his gloves.
“It was a special moment to grow up in a city, be a huge fan of this team, and now have my name with a couple unbelievable players,” Marner said. “You know, a kid growing up would’ve never expected this — and now it’s kind of reality.”
Fox’s Fast 5
• Calle Järnkrok left the game in the second period with a groin injury that will require imaging and force him to “miss some time,” per Keefe.
This should open the door for fringe winger Nick Robertson to get a significant run of games, which will be great for the player’s development and important for the organization to see what they have in him.
“Nick is a guy we do want to have more involved,” Keefe said.
• Auston Matthews had 10 goals by the end of November in 2021 and finished with 60 on the season.
Matthews now has goals in three straight and 12 by the end of November 2022.
• For all of San Jose’s flaws, its aggressive penalty kill is not one.
The Sharks went a perfect three-for-three on the PK in Toronto and the lead the NHL with an incredible 91.6-per-cent success rate. The Boston Bruins (83.5 per cent) sit a distant second.
• Quote of the Day.
“He’s a fun player to watch, but hopefully today he’s boring.” — Timothy Liljegren on boyhood hero and fellow Swedish right-shot defenceman Erik Karlsson
(Karlsson has been held pointless for consecutive games for the first time in North America this season.)
• In honour of Börje Salming, the Leafs raised cash for ALS Action Canada by donating all proceeds from Wednesday’s sales of Reverse Retro replica sweaters. Actual game sweaters from this, the first home date since Salming’s death, will be auctioned off here for ALS as well.
Those awesome Börje shoulder patches are now available for fans to purchase, and proceeds for those will go to the same charity all season.
“He’s going to live with Toronto forever,” said Swedish winger Engvall.