The presence of Frederik Gauthier and Martin Marincin on the roster is often cited as reasons the Maple Leafs aren’t to be taken seriously as playoff contenders.
Yet the big men loomed large at both ends in Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks, with rare goals that put the Leafs a bit higher on the Florida Panthers in the close race for third-place seeding in the Atlantic Division.
“Everybody is stepping up right now,” said Zach Hyman, whose 12th career empty-net goal tied Dave Keon for the most in franchise history.
Despite another inexplicably static effort at home following a sweep of the Sunshine State, Gauthier struck for the first time in six weeks and, even more amazing, the stay-at-home defenceman Marincin had his first in nearly a calendar year.
Leaned on all the more by coach Sheldon Keefe since Jake Muzzin’s broken hand put the Leafs three regular blueliners down, Marincin and a group that includes rookie Rasmus Sandin and Calle Rosen, helped give the Leafs their third straight win.
With the score tied 2-2 at Scotiabank Arena to start the third period, Marincin, who was jumping into the rush a couple of times, took full initiative. He carried the puck in, clanked the puck directly off of the post and followed up to bury the rebound.
Painfully shy in front of camera lights and media, Marincin received plenty of encouragement from mates before being pushed to the podium.
“I can do that (score), I just have to be more active,” Marincin said. “I like this (rush) play. I always did that in junior and AHL. They trust me and I’m trying.
“We are missing three top defencemen, but I still feel we have a good team.”
Marincin, given the cool nickname ‘The Specialist’, by former assistant coach D.J. Smith for his penalty-killing, blocked six shots. He also had six giveaways, one of his weak spots that critics pounce on, though Keefe said his near disastrous gaffe late in the second was a product of being kept out too long on that shift.
Gauthier was in and out of the lineup the past few weeks, as Keefe experimented with new fourth line centre/wingers, but ultimately went back to him. He delivered a nice shot through traffic on one of two Tyson Barrie assists to open the scoring, but as Hyman noted, he also had a couple of nice tips and strong coverage in the trenches.
Of course, Keefe has a high level of trust in both Gauthier and Marincin from their time with the AHL Marlies and the 2018 Calder Cup title.
“The depth guys guys did a great job and carried the play for the most part when they were out,” said Keefe. “We’re asking a lot of our defence now, playing different roles than they have all season for most of them.
“With the Marlies, every time Marty scored it was memorable.”
As the Leafs came out for the third, the out-of-town board showed Florida getting a point in a shootout loss to Chicago, meaning Toronto’s win stretched the lead in the standings to five with the Cats holding a game in hand.
Now Toronto is going on to a three-game California road trip, with the unusual circumstance of the Ducks, Sharks and Kings all out of the playoffs and on paper, a possible six points.
Gauthier’s first goal since Jan. 14 was followed by a more frequent marksman, when Auston Matthews, took over. Starting with a great reverse by Travis Dermott in the Leafs corner to get open ice, the defenceman handed off to Matthews who came over centre and down the wing with speed. Expecting something low, Thatcher Demko had awkward positioning and Matthews had No. 45.
“We just hit the reset button,” Matthews declared on three wins in the week following the embarrassing SBA loss to emergency goalie David Ayres and the Hurricanes. “The coaches can’t do it for us, the fan can’t.”
Only nine Leafs have that 45 total and Matthews is now 10 from a Leafs single-season record. But he was among those in amazement that Marincin scored.
“Not every night you see a guy who is 6-foot-5 in the shutdown role do something like that,” Matthews said.
Dermott said he and Juston Holl “were in disbelief” watching the goal unfold.
Frederik Andersen wasn’t getting much early on help as Toronto goals were quickly answered, making it four on the first nine shots by both clubs. Grinder Tyler Motte and the Canucks’ fourth line manufactured the first one and then John Tavares’ line backed off too much when Tanner Pearson tied it.
Barrie, whose ability to fill the roles of the injured blueliners was questioned, added two assists to make it six in the past four games. Dermott also had two assists in a six-point night for the Toronto D.