The Maple Leafs have just one more game before the all-star break and the team is loose as a goose.
At practice on Tuesday, Mitch Marner wore custom-designed skates that he will publicly unveil at this weekend’s proceedings.
They are mostly a splashy pink and white – quite fitting for a fete in South Florida – and also feature his chocolate lab, Zeus.
As Marner took the ice, teammates gathered to inspect his footwear.
“A couple of guys thought they were pretty juicy,” Marner said. “A couple of other guys chirped me. I think everybody probably likes them but they’ll never say it to your face.”
Marner has no plans to wear them against the Bruins at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday.
“They are way too flashy,” he said.
Toronto is 31-12-8 and a distant second behind Boston in the NHL’s Atlantic Division. Marner is the organization’s lone representative at the festivities in Sunrise. Auston Matthews was selected but is nursing a sprained knee and won’t attend.
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This will be third meeting between the Eastern Conference rivals, each of which has won one previous game. Boston is 38-7-5 but comes in having lost its past three outings – all on the road – to Tampa Bay, Florida and Carolina.
“They have great players and have for a long time,” Sheldon Keefe, the Maple Leafs head coach, said. “They have been more consistent than any other team in the league in all facets of the game.”
When the numbers are crunched, the Bruins are slightly better than the Maple Leafs in almost every category. The difference between them, though, has gotten smaller and smaller.
Led by Mark Giordano, Toronto’s defence is better than it has been in years. Its goaltending is better than average. Even without Matthews, its offence is top-notch. Perhaps a bit more grit is needed but otherwise not much is terribly lacking.
Sooner or later, Boston was due to go into a mini slump. It was playing at a record pace. Its goaltending is superb, Patrice Bergeron is a Hall of Fame centre and David Pastrnak is one of the most elite scorers in the league.
“He is an extremely creative player,” John Tavares, the Maple Leafs captain, said of Pastrnak. “You always have to expect the unexpected. You can never take your eyes off of him.”
Tavares had two assists on Sunday in an easy 5-1 victory over the Washington Capitals. It was the 1,000th game of his career.
Afterward, his teammates duped him, pretending to give the wrestling-style belt that is awarded to the game’s top player to Giordano.
In turn, the 39-year-old walked across the locker room and presented it to Tavares. Giordano surpassed 1,000 games last season.
“I wasn’t really sure what was going on,” Tavares said. “It was awkward there for a little bit. Then [Giordano] came to me. It was a great way to finish off a great day and a great win.”
A week ago, Boston became the fastest team in NHL history to reach 80 points in a regular season.
“We talked about facing adversity at some point in the year and here we are,” Bergeron said on Sunday. “We have to face that as a team together and roll up our sleeves and learn from what hasn’t been there the last few games.”
Part of it may be caused by looking forward to the all-star break after a tough grind through 50 games.
“You can’t deny that but you have to be pros and make sure you bring it every night,” Bergeron said. “A back-to-back on the road, lots of hockey, that’s part of it. But it is nothing other teams are not seeing.”
Toronto has a chance to at least get Boston’s attention with a triumph on Wednesday.
“They lost their last couple so they are coming in here to try to get a win before the all-star break,” the scrappy forward Michael Bunting said.
The Maple Leafs have the same goal. As things stand now the clubs could meet in the second round of the playoffs.
That is a long way off and can only be achieved if Toronto takes its game to another level in the post-season.
For now, there is only one game left before a nine-day break. There is a bit of frivolity – and pink skates – in the air.
“They are a little bit out there,” Bunting said.