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Maple Leafs' growth on display in crucial Game 3 victory over Bruins

Last season's playoffs loss to the Washington Capitals was a learning experience for the young Maple Leafs, and suffering that defeat has allowed this "older, more experienced, more comfortable" Toronto team to bounce back against the Bruins.

Regardless of how this series turns out – and that’s a little more in doubt now than there was after Game 2 – the Toronto Maple Leafs continue to make the kind of progress that should see them lift the Stanley Cup, maybe more than once, in the next decade. In defeat, they are learning. And when they win, as they did in Game 3 Tuesday night, they are putting those lessons to practical use.

Or as Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock put it after his team won Game 3 over the Boston Bruins by a 4-2 margin: “What you have to remember is these guys are young guys. They’re playing against real players and they’re young guys. So you’ve got to go through some of these slappings in your life to respond and learn how to play and do things right.”

The reality is, though, some bad puck luck and great goaltending by Frederik Andersen are really the only things keeping the Bruins from having a 3-0 series lead. The other reality is they’re probably not too worried about where their game is at the moment. For the Leafs, though, this is more of a statement. And few players made a bigger statement than Mitch Marner, who played head-to-head with his linemates (and new center Tomas Plekanec) against the devastatingly powerful Patrice Bergeron line and came out ahead. This time last year, Marner was learning the hard way what it takes to succeed in the playoffs. At times, he looked lost against the Washington Capitals.

But we’re seeing a different Mitch Marner this spring, one that is not afraid to assert himself or to try things with his abundant skill. The Marner playing in this year’s playoff is a more mature, more confident player who is playing with a good level of swagger.

“Definitely,” Marner said when asked if he notices the difference this spring. “You know what you’re coming into in your second year. First year it’s all just the first time and you hear about it, but you never really know until you get into the action. I think you’re more aware of what’s going on in your second year.”

In case you haven’t noticed, Marner leads all Maple Leafs in playoff scoring with a goal and three assists, just as he did in the regular season. Down the scoring list a little is Auston Matthews, another youngster who didn’t exactly show that well in Games 1 and 2 and who started slowly in Game 3, but whose body language as the game went on indicated he was beginning to find his game. He finally scored a goal, the one that turned out to be the winner, which he thought was a statement he needed to make. “Absolutely,” Matthews said. “I think everybody did.”

It’s easy to forget sometimes that the whole building process with the Maple Leafs has been accelerated, in part because of the play of kids such as Morgan Rielly and Matthews and Marner. (Funny how we don’t hear anyone lamenting the fact that the Leafs could have had Noah Hanifin with that fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft anymore.) That’s why they went out and got 38-year-old Patrick Marleau, who scored twice on goals that were assisted by Marner.

“He’s been setting me up all year,” Marleau said when asked if he was expecting Marner to make the eye-popping play on his first goal. “So I just go there and try to put my stick on the ice and he made a great play.”

The Leafs do have the luxury of youth, probably for another year or two. Then more will be expected. And they could still be in for a spectacular playoff disappointment before they really, really learn about what it takes to seriously contend for a Stanley Cup. And those lessons are piling up like a snow bank in the dead of winter at the edge of an outdoor rink. They may not pay off in 2018, or even in 2019, but there will be a day when Marner and his teammates look back on these springs fondly.

As they say so often hockey, it’s all part of the process. “Just being in those positions (last year) helps,” Rielly said. “Older, more experienced, more comfortable and that’s just what leads to Mitch and those younger guys, including myself, playing better.”

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