Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner living to answer Maple Leafs' prayers

BOSTON -- Whenever I think about Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, I think about Bon Jovi.

It was a Toronto Maple Leafs home game in their rookie seasons, back in November 2016. They were seated on the bench next to each other. "Livin' On A Prayer," the seminal hair-rock classic that was released a decade before either of them was born, blared over the Air Canada Centre speakers during a stoppage in play. As is tradition everywhere from wedding receptions to karaoke bars, they sang along.

You can tell a lot about a person by the way he or she belts out a rock anthem, and in that moment, I first got a whiff of who these young stars were. Marner sang with the conviction of a guy who probably uses his stick as a faux mic stand when he isn't on the bench. Matthews sang like a guy who's frankly too cool to sing Bon Jovi but knows all the words so he joins in, only with about half the gusto of his teammate.

In their two seasons in the NHL, these roles seem pretty well cast. Marner is a goofball, a dressing room comedian who has graduated to spoofing his own boyish comportment in commercials for an insurance company. Matthews can, at times, seem like a more somber Jonathan Toews.

Marner was going to dress up like Mini-Me to teammate Matt Martin's Dr. Evil for Halloween until their significant others put the kibosh on it. Matthews went as Ken Bone one year.

"You can have fun. Try to keep it light at all times. Obviously, everyone gets prepared differently, but I have to kind of keep it joking around. That's when I think I'm at my best," said Marner, who added that the fun continues in the playoffs for the Leafs.

"We enjoy each other's company in this room. And this whole team keeps it light. Except for after warm-ups. Then it gets serious and stuff."

This isn't to say that Matthews doesn't have fun -- to reiterate, he went as Ken Bone for Halloween -- but rather that he complements his teammate's precocious energy with a slightly more practiced type.

"He's a grown man," Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly said of Matthews. "He came in, and everybody talked about his maturity, but two years in, that's a common theme."

Matthews and Marner are in their second straight postseason for Toronto, following a stretch in which the franchise made the playoffs once in 11 years. But those are the old Leafs, and Marner and Matthews have turned over a new one. At just 20 years old, they are tasked with bringing home the team's first Stanley Cup since 1967 -- or roughly 20 years before "Livin' On A Prayer" was released.

So, like, no pressure.

Their rookie seasons saw Matthews win the Calder Trophy with 69 points in 82 games while Marner recorded 61 in 77. With Matthews limited to 62 games due to injury in 2017-18, Marner led Toronto in scoring this season, with 69 points. Matthews was first in points per game (1.02) and scored 34 goals.

This season saw Matthews' line with William Nylander and Zach Hyman dominate when together and saw Marner find chemistry with offseason addition Patrick Marleau, who is 18 years his elder.

"It was exciting to watch him this season. He was taking over games," Matthews said of Marner. "He was one of our best players in the second half of the year."

Matthews, meanwhile, had an undeniable impact on the Leafs when he was in the game. Toronto had a 12.8 shooting percentage at 5-on-5 when Matthews was on the ice. His individual shooting percentage at even strength was 18.4 percent, which is even better than his rookie rate (13.8 percent).

Matthews and Marner can dominate in the regular season. But the best news for the Leafs is that they learned a quick lesson that regular-season success isn't a harbinger of success in the playoffs -- an education forged in their six-game playoff loss to the Washington Capitals in the first round last season.

"There's going to be an adjustment in the first game, game and a half. It's pretty eye-opening. But you get the hang of it," Matthews said. "It's not the regular season. It's not the first 25, 30 games where it's going to be super open out there. There's not a lot of space. You have to generate off the cycle in the offensive zone. Not much comes off the rush. Once you get your head around that and understand that and get to work, we generated opportunities."

Marner agreed. "I learned that every shift, you have to play like it's your last. There isn't a lot of space out there. It's a battle. Not a lot of time and space out there, and you can't get frustrated," he said. "You hear about how the playoffs are different, but you never know until you get into the action. You're aware of what's going on in your second year."

The duo's first playoff series was, to use a clinical term, sorta bonkers, as one might expect when playing the Capitals in the postseason. Five of the six games went to overtime, and Game 2 went to double-overtime. Matthews ended up with four goals and an assist. Marner had one goal and three assists.

"I wouldn't say we were happy with it, but you got a taste of it," Matthews said. "We were able to hang with one of the best teams in the league."

Hanging against Patrice Bergeron and the Boston Bruins has proven more difficult for Matthews in his sophomore playoff campaign.

The first two games of the Leafs' first-round series at Boston were a nightmare for Matthews against the line of Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

"They've been playing really well. Not only producing offensively but matched up against some pretty talented guys," Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid said of his teammates.

The Bruins line rolled through the Matthews line, scoring 20 points among them while Matthews didn't tally a point in those games. They pinned Matthews inside of his own zone: In Game 1, Matthews started just 22.22 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone; in Game 2, the number was 28.57 percent. In the regular season, it was 49.12.

"I don't know. S--- happens, I guess," Matthews said with a shrug. "It's hockey. Gotta rebound for Game 3."

Which, in fact, he did.

Matthews's goal at 14:47 of the second period snapped a 2-2 tie en route to a 4-2 Leafs win. The Bergeron line was out there, tanks empty after a long shift. Matthews snapped a shot past Tuukka Rask. The crowd went berserk, to the point that Matthews said it felt "like an earthquake at your feet" inside the rink.

Toronto coach Mike Babcock said it was a critical goal for his young star because of ... social media?

"I think when you're my age, social media doesn't even really affect your life," he said. "When you're his age, it affects your life, and you know what people are saying, and it's not just what people are saying. You want to be the best player in the world, and it's not going the way you want, it probably tightens you up.

"Now, I haven't talked to him about this, so I don't know, this is me speculating, but I think tonight gets a huge weight off his shoulders, and instead of thinking about all this stuff, it'll just come natural, and he'll get playing again. That, to me, is a huge thing for him."

Marner said the Matthews goal was "massive" for the Leafs. "Got the whole bench going. Got the fan base going," he said. "There was a lot of electricity in the building. I don't know how many other guys can shoot a puck like that."

Marner had a goal and an assist in the Leafs' Game 2 blowout loss. In Game 3, he had the primary assist on both of Marleau's goals.

"I just think Mitch is a better hockey player [this season]. He's way stronger, for one," Babcock said. "Last year at this time, he was injured, didn't have his confidence and wasn't as good. He's stronger, he's playing with a real good player in Patty."

Game 3 was a snapshot of what Maple Leafs hockey is going to look like for the foreseeable future, with Matthews leading and Marner creating. (Although, perhaps, the foreseeable future won't feature such a besieged goaltender behind a porous defense.)

But Marleau provides a different kind of snapshot: There are no postseason guarantees for supremely talented players.

Matthews was drafted first overall in 2016. Marner was taken fourth overall in 2014. Marleau was that kind of player, too: He was selected second overall by the San Jose Sharks in 1997, behind future teammate Joe Thornton (selected by Boston).

He has skated in 1,575 regular-season games and has scored 535 goals within his 1,129 points. He has also recorded 122 points in 180 playoff games. By almost any measure, Patrick Marleau has had a stellar career -- unless that measure is Stanley Cup rings, in which case it has woefully fallen short.

"I haven't won a Cup. I'm still looking for it," Marleau said. "I'd love to do it with these guys right here."

On the one hand, having Marleau on the roster is a motivating factor for Matthews. "Guys like Patty who haven't won [a Stanley Cup] before, I think it gives everybody else some extra motivation to accomplish that goal," he said.

On the other, Marleau's presence is a constant reminder to these young stars that a high draft position and expectations for championship glory are not, in fact, actual championship glory. Even the most brilliantly gifted performers can be victims to circumstances, many of them not of their own making.

Marleau's first playoff game with the Sharks was when he was 18 years old. He has been chasing the Stanley Cup ever since.

To put that in a different context: Patrick Marleau has been chasing the Stanley Cup for the entirety of Mitch Marner's and Auston Matthews' lives.

"It's hard to win, hard to be successful at playoff time," Babcock said. "There's lots of teams trying to be great. So I think he's a real good example to our group that way.

"I think it's a great message to everybody in our room. You think you're a bunch of kids, and your chance is going to come, and it's going to come, and it's going to come. Next year never comes in sport. When you have an opportunity, make good on it. We believe in our room we have an opportunity."

Babcock knows what he has in Matthews, Marner, Nylander and the slew of young talent on his roster. He knows what he's helping to build. The dial hasn't quite turned for the Leafs from the incubation period for a championship contender to the period with expectation of greatness, though one could argue that the Leafs are in their last postseason before that shift.

For now, it's about examples and education. It's about learning how to prepare and how to adjust after, for example, you get your lunch handed to you in the first two games of a playoff series.

It's about knowing that the core of the team is a lot closer to those two guys on the bench singing songs from "Slippery When Wet" as rookies than they are to being today's Patrick Marleau.

"What you've got to remember is these guys are young guys," Babcock said. "You've got to go through some of these slappings in your life, to respond and learn how to play and do things right."

To paraphrase New Jersey's bard of big-haired 1980s rock: This postseason, it doesn't make a difference if they make it or not. They've got each other. That's a lot.

We'll let Marner and Matthews handle the chorus: