Responding to more responsibility
Morgan Rielly proving he deserves the “A” placed on his jersey
PITTSBURGH — Kyle Dubas and Mike Babcock didn’t pin an “A” on Morgan Rielly’s chest with the goal of him ascending team records in points by a defenceman.
But, if giving a share of the captaincy is to be judged after one month, fair to say Rielly has lived up to the letter in every sense.
In a game the Maple Leafs badly needed to halt a series of home ice setbacks — and to settle themselves and their restless fan base — Rielly took a pivotal role in Saturday’s 5-0 win over the Penguins. His teamhigh 23 minutes and nine seconds of ice included big-time bust-ups in Toronto’s zone and yielded two goals, for 18 points and a tie for most by any NHL blueliner the past decade through 14 games. “Tonight, he was really committed and dialed in,” Babcock said. “He’s always good offensively, sometimes not quite as good (defensively).”
The last defenceman this hot through the first month was another Leaf, Tomas Kaberle, while Rielly is one point better so far than a guy Babcock often hold up as a shining example to all his blueliners, Nicklas Lidstrom of the Red Wings.
“There is no one who likes being a Leaf more than Morgan,” Babcock added. “He provides leadership and has unbelievable enthusiasm every day, a zest for life and he shares that with the guys. You need energy people and he’s one of them.”
Rielly will talk about anything except his points, but was glad he was among those stepping up Saturday in the team’s first 60-minute win without the injured Auston Matthews.
“There are a lot of guys who can take that responsibility, guys who are willing and able to accept more, play more minutes in bigger situations,” said Rielly. “That’s a strength of this team, the depth and support, who are willing to take that responsibility in the next few games. I got a lucky one at the end (on Pens’ goalie Matt Murray) so I don’t think you should put too much (creedence) into that. It’s important that we all stay focused.”
Rielly was also the first to urge his mates to bring that complete game back to Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday against the Vegas Knights with the Leafs shut out in the first 40 minutes of their past five home games.
New look leaderboard
It was significant on Saturday that Rielly and Mitch Marner moved ahead of the idle Matthews for the team scoring lead while John Tavares tied him at 16. Kasperi Kapanen is now up to 12. Will Matthews be able to catch up when he comes back in about four weeks from his shoulder injury? Taveras, Marner and Zach Hyman are certainly potent 5-on5, never mind what the first two can contribute on the power play and what Marner and Hyman bring to the penalty kill.
As Sidney Crosby noted, Marner continues to gain confidence handling the puck in the offensive zone with his knack for changing gears and getting the puck on net. Tavares is a bull down low with the best hands other than Matthews for deflections. That’s how the all-important first goal unfolded Saturday.
“The more I play with him, the more I get a better sense of timing with his poise and his ability to hang onto it, read the play and buy time,” Tavares said of his tip. “That allows me to find open space and have my timing when I hit open areas and get a sense of when he finds the seam.”
View to a kill
Five penalty kills against the not-so-shabby Penguins’ power play was the Leafs best night in 14 games, bumping them back over 80% to third place in the conference. If Frederik Andersen wasn’t stopping them, defencemen Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev were clearing sight lines for him and Connor Brown and Hyman were at their disruptive best. Hyman ended the evening with Toronto’s first short-handed goal of the year.
“It hasn’t been as effective as we’d like it to be,” noted Babcock of the penalty kill. “We haven’t been able to clear the puck this year and been scored on so many times. (Assistant coach) D.J. Smith does a good with it, but it hasn’t shown in the results. We have good people. That will round itself into shape.”
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly gets the puck past Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray for his second goal of the game in the third period of an NHL hockey game, in Pittsburgh, on Saturday. The Maple Leafs won 5-0.