Published March 1, 2024

Marner stars at both ends, Leafs down Coyotes to hand Arizona its 14th straight loss

"He’s got a pretty good hockey brain"
Marner stars at both ends, Leafs down Coyotes to hand Arizona its 14th straight loss

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

Mitch Marner made one of his signature moves to give the Maple Leafs an early lead.

With his team down another defenceman, its most versatile player also stepped in on the back end.

Marner provided a highlight−reel assist to set up Matthew Knies before assuming a blue−line role after Mark Giordano suffered a head injury as Toronto topped Arizona 4−2 on Thursday to hand the Coyotes their 14th straight loss.

"We needed him," Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said of Marner. "Good that Mitch was able to chip in."

He did more than that.

The star winger intercepted Logan Cooley’s pass and moved in on a breakaway in the first period, but instead of shooting or making a move on Coyotes goaltender Connor Ingram, he fed the hard−charging Knies with a no−look, between−the−legs feed for the rookie to bury his 11th.

"I was screaming at him to take it on his own," said Knies, who also added an assist. "Made eye contact … I didn’t know he was gonna go against my word like that.

"He’s got a pretty good hockey brain."

Once again forced to dress six left−shot defenceman with Timothy Liljegren (undisclosed injury) out for a second consecutive game, the Leafs lost Giordano earlier in the period when he crashed into boards on a rush chance.

That set the stage for Marner’s showing on defence later in the game.

"Just going where I’m getting asked," said the 26−year−old, who’s been put on the back end before. "Trying to find plays and try not to make mistakes."

Keefe, who had Marner on defence for large chunks of the second period and parts of the third, said it takes a special player to make that switch.

"He’s comfortable being the last guy back and having the puck," he said. "You can have some of the most skilled players in the world, but being the last guy back is a different animal."

Auston Matthews, with his NHL−leading 53rd goal, and Tyler Bertuzzi also scored for Toronto (34−17−8). Joseph Woll made 30 saves in his return from a long injury absence. William Nylander added an empty netter to go along with two assists.

"I’ve really been missing playing," said Woll, out since Dec. 7 with a high ankle sprain. "To be able to play at our home building and to get a win like that was pretty nice."

The Leafs announced a trade later Thursday night with an eye toward shoring up their defence corps when they reacquired Ilya Lyubushkin, who shoots right, and a prospect in a three−team deal with Anaheim and Carolina.

Cooley and Alex Kerfoot replied for Arizona (23−31−5), which dropped to 0−12−2 since its last victory Jan. 22. Ingram stopped 22 shots.

"Our guys never quit," Coyotes head coach Andre Tourigny said. "Disappointing the way we started."

Arizona entered 10−0−2 over its 12 previous visits to Scotiabank Arena/Air Canada Centre, with the Coytes last regulation loss in Toronto coming all the way back on Oct. 17, 2002 — the day Knies was born in Phoenix.

"I had no idea," Knies said. "That’s a huge coincidence."

The Leafs, who saw a seven−game win streak snapped with Tuesday’s 6−2 home loss to Vegas, opened the scoring at 13:04 of the first on that Marner to Knies connection.

"A lot to process there in a short amount of time," Keefe said of a play Marner has successfully attempted previously in both junior and the NHL. "In terms of the spacing, the timing, the decision."

Back in the lineup after missing 35 games, Woll didn’t have much to do at the other end until he stretched to make a nice stop on Barrett Hayton, whose group was minus leading scorer Clayton Keller (undisclosed) for a second straight game.

Toronto forward Ryan Reaves then fought Liam O’Brien late in the period, with the Leafs tough guy scoring a takedown before pointing to his right biceps to roaring crowd approval.

Bertuzzi doubled the lead 65 seconds into the second when he tipped in his 12th — and fifth goal in the last three games.

Matthews, who had gone two straight games without scoring after finding the back of the net 10 time in his five previous contests, fired home his 53rd of the campaign at 13:12.

Kerfoot, who played four seasons with Toronto from 2019 to 2023 and was making his return to Scotiabank Arena, got that one back at 14:39 when he scored his 10th on a short−handed breakaway off a turnover.

Cooley cut the deficit to 3−2 at 9:52 of the third with his ninth, but Woll held the fort from there despite some nervy moments before Nylander iced it into the empty net with his 32nd.

"He looked great, really composed," Matthews said of Woll. "Made up for lot of mistakes on our end.

"Looked really solid."

banner image: The Canadian Press

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