ST. LOUIS -- When he returned to the team in Arizona on Thursday following a stint on COVID-19 protocol, a refreshed Mitch Marner came back with a deliberate objective...To score goals.
On Saturday night, it took Marner just 7:32 of the opening period to make good on his directive. He stole a puck in the St. Louis Blues' offensive zone and rifled a shot past goaltender Jordan Binnington.
"It obviously makes you feel good, makes you start feeling the puck a little more, making plays," Marner said after the Toronto Maple Leafs' 6-5 victory. "Definitely still some scenarios where I want to try to get more pucks on the net, but I was pretty happy coming in here and playing the game I did."
Marner made his presence felt throughout the night. A player who plays on both special teams, he was instrumental in some takeaways during the Blues' first power play in the first period. On the power play, Marner set up Auston Matthews for what was the game-tying goal at the time, a nifty pass from behind to net to a waiting Matthews in front of the net.
"He's a world-class player," Matthews said of Marner. "We're a better hockey team when he's playing, so we're happy to have him back."
Marner missed the first three games of the team's current road trip due to landing on COVID-19 protocol. He only played two games before that in 2022, after missing most of December with a shoulder injury.
On Saturday, Marner gave the Leafs a boost on the ice. And although he has not scored a power-play goal in his last 100 games, he delivered as good of an all-around game you could expect from the skilled forward given the circumstances.
"I want to be a threat out there," Marner repeated after the game. "I know I can be. I've been a goal-scorer and I know I have it in me."
The Maple Leafs played a very up-and-down game against the Blues. After Ryan O'Reilly scored the opening goal for St. Louis, the Leafs followed with three quick goals from Michael Bunting, Marner and John Tavares.
The Blues roared back early in the second period to tie the game 3-3.
O'Reilly and Brandon Saad scored 1:40 apart. Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe called a timeout to cool things down and that appeared to yield the desired effect.
Timothy Liljegren scored his first NHL goal less than three minutes after the timeout to put Toronto back on top 4-3.
"I didn't see the puck go in. I was kind of hesitant to celebrate at first," Liljegren said.
His teammates took care of the celebrations for him, including close friend Rasmus Sandin who told him in a playful way that now it's Sandin as the only everyday player left who has yet to score this season.
Robert Thomas scored late in the second period to tie the game 4-4 for St. Louis. There was some controversy as to whether or not Jordan Kyrou should have been called for tackling Liljegren seconds before Thomas' goal.
In the third period, the Blues retook the lead when Niko Mikkola put in a loose puck in front of the net.
Liljegren lamented on the fact that he was on the ice for three goals against, including the last St. Louis goal but generally felt good about his game.
The Swedish defenseman played his first game of 2022 on Thursday in Arizona against the Coyotes on the third pair. With Justin Holl now on COVID-19 protocol, Liljegren moved to the second pair to play with Jake Muzzin.
"I thought he played a great game today," Keefe said of Liljegren. "Moved the puck really well and really helped us with the breakout. He got out of trouble. At times he got himself in trouble but then he bailed himself out."
Later in the third, Marner assisted on Matthews' 25th goal of the season and his franchise-record 10th straight game with at least goal in road games to tie the game 5-5.
"That's what Mitch does, he's a game-breaker like that," Keefe said of Marner's performance. "It was certainly nice to have him back in the mix here tonight."
Ilya Mikheyev capped the comeback for the Leafs with his fifth goal of the season in just seven games played.
The Maple Leafs return home to rest and practice for a couple of days before going back on the road on Wednesday to take on the New York Rangers. Third period-lapses were an issue for the team in the first three games of the trip, but they remedied that against the Blues.
So long as Marner can build off the solid game and continue to produce like he has in the past, the Leafs will be in good stead for this difficult stretch where their situation at home remains uncertain with COVID-19 restrictions.
But the one thing that is evident about Marner since he made the trip is he is confident. And given the questions, scrutiny and pressure the Toronto-born player has been subject to in the last year, a confident Marner is the best the team can ask for."