Judging by the results, Mitch Marner and the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to lobby the NHL for more weekday afternoon games.
"I loved it. You wake up, you eat and you just go to the rink and play. It's nice to just wake up and have at it," said Marner's centre, Tyler Bozak. He also said he had as much fun watching Marner's spectacular breakout from a scoring slump in an 8-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes as he did benefiting from his linemate's creativity on Tuesday afternoon.
Marner scored his first goal since Nov. 11 – just his third of the season – and added three assists. Bozak was rewarded with a goal and three assists, while the third member of the line, left winger James van Riemsdyk, had a goal and two assists.
Along with breaking Marner's scoring drought and a three-game Leafs losing streak, the game was notable for the resurgence of the entire Toronto offence. The Leafs had scored only four goals in their previous four games.
The players agreed the celebratory atmosphere, as well as the unusual 2 p.m. weekday start, might have played a role in their breakout. The game marked the 100th anniversary of both the NHL and the Toronto franchise, which was known as the Arenas on Dec. 19, 1917, when the league launched.
With the game starting at 2 p.m., Leafs management encouraged season-ticket holders to bring children to the game or pass on their tickets to the younger set. And the pregame ceremony featured a large group of children in their full hockey uniforms taking the ice with their heroes. It added up to a more lively vibe from the 19,288 fans present than what comes from the usual corporate crowd.
This led to lots of jokes at Marner's expense from the rest of the Leafs. The second-year Leaf is 20 years old, but could easily pass for a teenager on his way to his first driver's-education class.
"I heard lots of shots coming off the ice," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. "'Mitch you were really good in the first, you've got your classmates here, you're trying to impress them. … First time we've played a game that wasn't after your bed time,' and all that stuff."
Hey, Marner said, it was a whole lot of fun, especially for a local kid who grew up as a Leafs fan. And the capper was getting to wear the throwback blue Arenas sweaters with the white stripes on the arms and the odd-looking Arenas logo.
"The whole ceremony was awesome," Marner said. "The whole atmosphere was a lot of fun to play in front of and I'm glad we gave them a good game to watch. It was pretty wicked to wear those jerseys. It was a cool atmosphere, cool to be part of that game."
The fun started early for Marner. After Leo Komarov warmed up the crowd with a shorthanded goal at 2:52 of the first period, Marner weaved his way into the Carolina zone a few minutes later and ripped a wrist shot over Hurricanes goaltender Scott Darling's shoulder to break his slump and give the Leafs a 2-0 lead.
From that point on, Marner was a marvel, dancing around the Carolina zone with the puck tied to his stick. His game was summed up by his setup of Bozak's goal at 13:28 of the first period. Marner took the puck from one corner to the other along the end boards, spun away from a Carolina defenceman and cut straight into the slot. He actually lost control of the puck at that point, but the puck slid to Bozak, who whipped it into the net while everyone else on the ice, as well as those in the seats, were marvelling at the show.
"Everyone always talks about how big and strong you've got to be to move in the corner and get away from guys," Bozak said of his not-so-big right winger. "With his speed and agility, he knows how to use his body and get open and find ways to beat guys. It's fun to be a part of, and you can be on the receiving end of a lot of those plays by him."
During his five-week scoring slump, Marner was moved around the lines by Babcock and wound up on the fourth line for a long stretch. He said he always kept his spirits up, which was easy to do because of the closeness of the players and their collective good humour. But he did welcome a return to playing with Bozak and van Riemsdyk, with whom he had a 61-point rookie season in 2016-17.
"I think we were just cycling the puck well," Marner said. "When we were getting chances, we were moving our feet. Guys were getting open and getting to the net. Especially our line, that's what we want to get back to, a team that pushes the pace and makes it hard on another team's defence.
"We've had a lot of chemistry. I thought before this we had a lot of bounces that just haven't gone our way. We all had chances. It's nice when you get a couple and those chances come back to you."
The person who supplied the scouting report on Darling deserves a pat on the back as well. Aside from Komarov and Marner, William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen also scored on high wrist shots. Nylander broke a slump as it was his first goal since Nov. 30. The other Leafs goals were scored by Patrick Marleau and Connor Carrick. Jeff Skinner scored for the Hurricanes.