With the clock ticking down towards the final minute of play, it looked as if Mitch Marner had missed his final shot at history.
Down one, the San Jose Sharks were chasing the tying goal and with their net empty, the Toronto Maple Leafs winger had twice had opportunities to push his streak to a franchise record-equalling 18 consecutive games. For reasons he would later struggle to explain, he had tried to pass to Michael Bunting the first time, before missing the net by mere inches with 1:26 to play the second time he had a look at the empty cage.
But fortune smiled on the Markham, Ont., native, and the third time proved the charm. With 1:11 to play, Marner took a pass from Alex Kerfoot before sliding the puck into the net from just inside the blueline to cap a 3-1 win, Toronto’s fifth straight victory.
It was his eighth goal and 29th point of the season, but more pertinently it extended his point streak to 18 consecutive games, pulling level with former Leafs captain Darryl Sittler and Eddie Olczyk. Sittler had 33 points in 18 games in the 1978 season, while Olczyk had 28 in the 1989-90 campaign.
“It was a special moment to grow up in this city, be a huge fan of this team and now have my name with a couple unbelievable players,” Marner said afterwards. The Leafs alternate captain now has 24 points across his 18-game streak, which began in the reverse fixture in San Jose, a 4-3 overtime loss on Oct. 27.
In the first home game following the death of Borje Salming last week, Wednesday was very much a throwback affair. In addition to a pregame video tribute, a 21-second moment of silence and Salming’s retired No. 21 banner being partially lowered from its customary position in the rafters as a token of respect, the Leafs also wore Reverse Retro jerseys. With a white, 1980s-style yoke on top of the usual blue, the jerseys had Salming tribute patches on the shoulders, and the threads were to be auctioned off after the game to support ALS Action Canada.
The game itself was a sloppy affair. Auston Matthews got Toronto on the board in the second period with his 12th of the season, but after Matt Nieto tied things up shortly afterwards, it was left to Pierre Engvall to grab the winner with 2:27 to play.
Matthews, no stranger to record-setting performances himself after establishing a new franchise high for goals with 60 last season, said there were a few concerns that Marner would fall short.
“What are you doing? Just put it in the net & head home!” Matthews joked about how Marner’s teammates reacted to his pass-first tendencies.
The pair shared a heartfelt moment after the empty-netter slid home though, and given the bond that the two have established since they entered the league together in 2016, it’s not a memory that either will soon forget.
“Me and him have been through a lot together,” Marner said. “Obviously we want to achieve great things together as well, and you know, I was with him with those big moments he had last year and it was so cool to take him in with him and be by his side and for him to just be that happy and that excited for me meant a lot.”
Ever the pragmatist, head coach Sheldon Keefe said that while he was happy for Marner, he was equally happy that his team could put the game away, particularly with a red-hot Erik Karlsson – who leads all defencemen with 32 points – lurking.
“It’s an important goal,” Keefe said. “I didn’t want to defend a one-goal lead to the very end, especially with [No.] 65 out there.”
The win capped a November to remember for the Leafs, with the team finishing the month with an 11-1-3 mark, and picking up points in each of its last 10 games.
The team also welcomed back Ilya Samsonov Wednesday night, with the Russian goaltender having been out injured since Nov. 5. He responded with 23 saves on 24 shots to pick up the win and improve to 6-0-0 at home this season, his first in Toronto.
While the Leafs kick off their December schedule Saturday in Tampa Bay, Samsonov thinks Marner will be able to keep this run going, having already predicted he would tie the franchise mark on Tuesday.
“I looked to the future,” he laughed. “We’ll see. Almost 50 [games], yeah. I believe so.”