WASHINGTON –Morgan Rielly’s right eye was tinged with yellow and purple with a scrape underneath and there was more damage on the bridge of his nose.
These were the last remaining signs of a trying regular season for the Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman, who’s aiming to reach a higher level in his first NHL post-season. Leafs head coach Mike Babcock thought Rielly might have played his finest game of the year in Game 1 against the Washington Capitals, a 24-minute effort in a 3-2 overtime defeat.
But Rielly wasn’t so sure.
“It’s been so long, I can’t really remember all the games this year,” said Rielly ahead of Game 2 on Saturday night. “You just want to go out there and you want your next game to be the best one of the year and then you want your next one after that to be better.”
With Nikita Zaitsev sidelined by a suspected concussion and uncertain to return, the Leafs need Rielly to keep rising higher and higher against the Caps. He and Jake Gardiner are being asked to do a little bit of everything with Rielly’s duties in Game 1 including bits of matchup time against Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Justin Williams, some penalty killing and a little bit of time on the power play.
What made him effective, Babcock said, was how he kept a tight gap between himself and onrushing forwards; how he won battles for the puck; how effectively he boxed out bodies around the net; how he’s capable of moving the puck out of the Toronto zone.
“I thought he was good,” Babcock said.
“I appreciate the compliment,” Rielly said, “but I’m not sure yet.”
Rielly dissected his performance on the bus ride back to the team hotel just a few hours earlier on Thursday night, mostly thinking at that point about what did he wrong and where he could improve. While he scarfed down a post-game meal and watched the Flames and Ducks play, those thoughts drifted toward the positive.
The B.C. native ultimately identified little plays that could be improved, such as how the club contained Ovechkin on defensive zone draws.
Rielly just turned 23-years-old in March, but for two seasons now has played some of the most difficult minutes possible. Babcock quickly pegged Rielly for matchup duty at the start of last season and had him killing penalties instead of running the power play.
It seemed imperative to the then-new coach that Rielly round out his game defensively for a possible long-term future as the club’s No. 1 defenceman.
But early this past March, Babcock curbed those duties slightly – pegging Gardiner to defend top lines in Rielly’s place alongside Zaitsev. Babcock never offered much detail on why the move was made, stating only that too many goals were being scored. Unsaid was how the shift slightly eased the level of competition Rielly was being asked to defend, a nightly plate which included Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, Claude Giroux and Nikita Kucherov.
True to Babcock’s rationale were the numbers. In the 21 games before the change was made Toronto was astoundingly outscored 34-14 at even-strength with Rielly on the ice – the final straw a 7-2 loss to Florida in mid-March. Poor goaltending was probably behind at least some of the suffering, though both shots and high danger scoring chances also favoured the opposition.
After the switch, which saw Rielly paired primarily with Connor Carrick and sometimes Roman Polak, the numbers flipped. The Leafs outscored the opposition 14-9 at even-strength over the final 14 games, Gardiner and Zaitsev functioning modestly as a new-look top pair.
Babcock noted that Rielly, who entered the NHL as a teenager, had been forced in some ways to figure out the league on his own – lacking a mentor such as Zdeno Chara. That’s not entirely true though as former Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf made it a point of showing Rielly the ropes in his first two NHL seasons.
What is true is that Rielly was thrust into heavy duties as an incredibly young and inexperienced player, his ups and downs perhaps typical of that reality.
Babcock boasted of his “growth potential.”
“What he’s great at is, he’s a good, good, good man who wants to be a real good player, so those guys are easy to coach,” Babcock said.
But with Zaitsev out and the Caps showcasing scary threats across their lineup, the Leafs need Rielly to keep ascending from a positive playoff debut in Game 1 – that is, if they’re to have a chance of an upset.
“I think that’s the approach you have to have,” Rielly said. “Especially this time of year.”