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Boston Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo (25) checks Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews (34) during the first period of game three of the first round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena.John E. Sokolowski/Reuters

When the Leafs talk about Mitch Marner in October or February, they speak of him like he’s Jari Kurri or Jaromir Jagr. A No. 2 guy, but a No. 2 who changes games.

Now that it’s coming up on May, it’s time for the Leafs to pull their playoff switcheroo. Now Marner’s a player who scores once in a while, while everyone agrees that modesty is his real gift.

“Mitch is our most reliable and consistent defensive player,” coach Sheldon Keefe said before Wednesday’s game.

It’s not a bad thing to be, but it’s not the reason they pay him so much. Nonetheless, at this time of year, Marner becomes Bob Gainey (but smaller, less vicious, not surrounded by a half-dozen guys who scored like crazy and never wins anything).

“The points stuff – I don’t get too worked up over that,” Keefe said elsewhere.

What a joy it must be for Leafs’ employees to appear in front of the team’s compensation committee:

‘What did you do to deserve a 500-per-cent raise?’

‘Nothing you need to get too worked up over.’

‘Would you prefer instalments or a lump sum?’

What’s changed isn’t Marner’s recession into the postseason. What’s different is how he and the Leafs are handling it.

For years, Marner would visibly buck against the idea that he’s falling down on the job when it matters most. You’d see him backed up against his own locker, wild-eyed and just itching to say something that could be used against him later.

Because Toronto is one of those markets that collects bulletin-board material against its own team, he would then be hung out for the eventual collapse. No Leaf is as synonymous with failing to rise as he is.

This year, instead of protesting, Marner has leaned into the critique.

To you, a layman who has access to a box score, it may look as though he’s not scoring. But it’s all he other things he’s not doing that really matter.

“I think we’re trying to be responsible,” Marner said of his low output. “Trying to find that medium … Make sure we’re doing it in a safe way.”

People have used a lot of words to describe the playoff Leafs. ‘Safe’ and ‘responsible’ are rarely among them. But in fairness to him, that has been the Leafs’ M.O. so far – small mistakes equals small margins equals a puncher’s chance.

So far, so so.

Early in Wednesday’s game, Marner was once again providing so many intangibles that you could not even begin to perceive them. Keefe threw him back on the top line at the end of the period, suggesting that he’s a little more worked up than he says.

But in the second, a classic, regular-season Marner moment – slowing play during a rush by rearing back on both heels, giving linemate Matthew Knies time to set up on the open side of the net. That assist was Marner’s first point of the series.

That’s enough to get him off the hook. Also, the Leafs lost 4-2.

As long as he doesn’t freak out from this point on, Marner is covered. The coach said so. He is a hundred-point guy in the regular season and a second-line digger in the playoffs. It is amazing what accommodations the Leafs can make with themselves.

“We’re getting our looks,” Marner said afterward, slipping easily into the plural now that he’s not shooting blanks. “We really are.”

Yeah? Then I guess everything must be going fine.

There’s a lot of bought-one-thing-ended-up-with-another going around on right now.

John Tavares was brought in to score points. Now he no longer scores points, but provides exemplary leadership. You can tell because he looks so serious.

Tyler Bertuzzi isn’t scoring? No problem. He’ll make up for it by allowing Brad Marchand to get so far under his skin that the Toronto will need to add a dermatologist to its medical team.

Max Domi has scored, but didn’t last night, so made up for it by antagonizing Boston goalie Jeremy Swayman. After Domi put a bit of a shoulder into him, Swayman went down so hard it’s a wonder he didn’t hurt himself pretending to hurt himself.

With everybody busy agitating, it’s no longer clear who handles the offence for Toronto. Auston Matthews, sure. And then who? With Marner turning into a very famous Roomba, and William Nylander still suffering a mystery ailment, there is no obvious second option.

Instead, there is suddenly a surplus of what had been missing – grit.

You’ve got Ryan Reaves trying to split opponents from nose to tail with his shoulder and Joel Edmundson going down face first in front of pucks. Now that every Leaf is playing for free, they all want to be role players.

Grit is good, but the judge of things is whether or not this new grit-forward approach works.

On Wednesday, it didn’t.

In the third, with the game tied, Boston outgritted and outscored the Leafs. Then when it came to it, Tavares was suckered into a terrible penalty. So outgritted, outscored and outsmarted.

So far in this series, Toronto has been blown out, been lucky to win and unlucky to lose. Against an outfit like the Bruins, it’s not a terrible start, but it’s also not sustainable.

Seeing Marchand come on the third should give the Leafs a terrible feeling. When the playoffs arrive, everyone knows who scores goals for Boston – everyone. The Bruins have spent a sporting generation sharing their duties.

Toronto works in the regular season because you know where the big passes and big goals are coming from – usually, the same three guys.

Now they’re down to one guy, and can’t quite figure out how to make lockdown defence and controlled brutality their new organizing philosophy. They’re trying to become Boston while playing Boston. I’ll give them this much – it’s bold.

The hope must be that Nylander can return soon, opening new avenues toward the opposing net. Or that Marner can add more than the occasional assist to his unique role as the NHL’s only superstar stay-at-home defenceman playing on the wing.

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