Re­spond­ing to more re­spon­si­bil­ity

Mor­gan Rielly prov­ing he de­serves the “A” placed on his jer­sey

Sentinel-Review (Woodstock) - - OPINION - LANCE HORNBY

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.”

GENE J. PUSKAR/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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