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Leafs youth take centre-stage after another honour for team's glorious past

Toronto Maple Leafs Connor Brown (12) celebrates with teammate Matt Hunwick after scoring his team's first goal during first period NHL hockey action against the Boston Bruins, in Toronto on Saturday, October 15, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
October 15, 2016 - 8:37 PM

TORONTO - Mats Sundin was returning to the Air Canada Centre as a Vancouver Canuck the last time Mitch Marner recalled watching the Maple Leafs as a fan in person.

More than seven years later and Marner was scoring on a night that saw Sundin's No. 13 raised to the rafters once more, part of a ceremony retiring the numbers of 17 former Maple Leafs players on Saturday evening. Indeed, on a night that saw greats of the past honoured it was hope for the future sparkling again in Toronto's first win of the season, a 4-1 defeat of the Boston Bruins.

Marner landed his first NHL goal in only his second NHL game, joined on the scoresheet by fellow rookie and Toronto native Connor Brown. Their efforts came on the heels of Auston Matthews' historic NHL debut, the first player to ever score four goals in his first game.

"It's a lot of excitement and obviously there's going to be (a) learning curve and growing pains throughout the way, but they've been playing great so far," James van Riemsdyk said of the youth movement.

Brown and Marner opened the scoring about 10 minutes apart against the Bruins, landing the Leafs in the record books once more. Toronto became the first team since expansion in 1967-68 to have rookies combine for the first six goals to start a season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Brown had the game's first goal after barely two minutes had ticked by, joined shortly after by the 19-year-old Marner then van Riemsdyk a few minutes after that.

The fourth overall pick of the 2015 draft, Marner took a pass from Tyler Bozak just outside the Boston blue line, gained the offensive zone with time and space and then fired a shot far-side beyond Bruins goaltender Anton Khudobin.

A native of nearby Thornhill, Ont., Marner said it was the kind of goal every kid dreams of and he followed it with an exuberant celebration.

"To finally be playing in front of these fans for real it's pretty crazy," Marner said. "And for the first one to go in in front of them, it's kind of sweet."

Outside of Matthews, Marner was perhaps Toronto's most dangerous player in a season-opening overtime loss to Ottawa on Wednesday. He had six shots in the 5-4 overtime defeat, following that up with a goal and four more shots in 15-plus minutes against the Bruins on Saturday.

He's shown a knack for getting behind the opposition's defence, finding a seam and some space for his first goal on Saturday.

"That's just good anticipation and good smarts where he can pick his spots to use his speed to get himself in those situations," van Riemsdyk said.

Marner said he'd give the puck from his first goal to his parents.

The worst team in the NHL last season, the Leafs have quickly shown themselves to be a much faster and highly skilled entity in the early days of this season, led by those like Marner, Matthews and 20-year-old William Nylander. Often that youth shows itself in less effective ways though, including a messy second period against the Bruins which saw Toronto's sloppiness with the puck lead to chances and sustained offensive zone time for Boston.

"I'd like us to obviously take better care of the puck and so we'll learn how to do that," Leafs coach Mike Babcock said afterward.

Frederik Andersen stopped any comeback efforts for Boston, saving all of the 16 shots he faced over the final two periods. He gave up only one goal on 25 shots overall, a much finer showing following his wobbly five-goal outing in Wednesday's season opener.

Babcock wondered if the pressures of his new position in Toronto as well as a September injury that shortened training camp may have affected Andersen in the early-going.

"But he's a real good goalie," Babcock said. "He knows he's a good goalie. He knows we think he's a good goalie so it was nice for him tonight. That'll give him a great day tomorrow."

Matthews was quiet on Saturday after his unparalleled showing earlier in the week. He was held point-less and finished with only two shots in nearly 17 minutes.

Van Riemsdyk was the only current Leaf to need a new sweater number after Saturday's jersey retirement ceremony. He changed to No. 25 from No. 21 (now retired for Borje Salming), a number he'd worn since childhood.

The American winger got a call from team president Brendan Shanahan in the summer informing him of the policy reversal with respect to the retiring of numbers. He thought he might be getting traded at first only to learn what was in store as part of the team's centennial season celebration.

All week long the Leafs have been celebrating the past, listing off the 100 greatest players in team history on Friday (van Riemsdyk ranked 100th).

Toronto took nearly a month to get its first home win last season, losing their first four on home-ice before finally winning for the first time in November.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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