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Rielly is Maple Leafs' 'backbone' and it showed in Game 1 vs. Capitals

April 14, 2017 9:20 PM
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Rielly is Maple Leafs' 'backbone' and it showed in Game 1 vs. Capitals

WASHINGTON — Morgan Rielly couldn’t sleep. His television was showing the end of the Calgary-Anaheim game.

His mind was still racing. He wasn’t really paying attention to the noise and colour in front of him.

Rielly was trying to relax after playing in the first Stanley Cup playoff game of his career, still reflecting on how great that felt, and how stunning the ending was, and how many directions his thoughts were taking him.

This isn’t something he does very well, wind down after games. He replays the game over in his head. Then he does it again. This is Rielly on game nights.

But this wasn’t any ordinary game night — for him and for so many of the young Maple Leafs.

This was something he has waited his entire life for. The playoffs: An explosion for a racing mind.

On the ice on Thursday night, Rielly stepped up the way you’re supposed to step up at playoff time. He elevated his game. He played what his coach called his best game of the season. This has not been an easy season for Rielly, who has watched this impressive array of rookies find their place as he has struggled to take the next step with his game.

But inside his dressing room, inside Leafs land, there is a special place for him as part-kid, part-veteran, part-leader, part-restaurant picker.

The backbone turned 23 last month. That makes him old and experienced around here, but so young as a defenceman in the National Hockey League. His maturity is apparent. And in his first playoff game, against the very experienced Washington Capitals, he played 24 minutes, 24 seconds, more ice time than any Washington player except Matt Niskanen, who played 12 seconds more.

He wasn’t sure if it was his best game of the season, although he appreciated the compliment from Mike Babcock. He knows what this time of year means — for himself, for his team, for his city, for reputations of players.

Playoffs define players. You want to be a playoff performer. You want to be a big-game player. You want to be known for that.

Rielly has never had humble ambitions. He wants to be elite, thrives to be elite. He thinks about the game all the time. Not all players are like that. Not all of them care so much about themselves or their teams. He thinks about how he can get better. He thinks about what makes him occasionally great and how he can get to that level all the time.

“For me, I want to limit the chances against. Once you take care of your own end, you want to skate and get into the rush,” he said.

That’s his game. With the puck — that’s where he can be a difference-maker. The Maple Leafs defence has been a target all season long. They are hardly ideal.

Rielly’s close friend, Jake Gardiner, led in ice time in Game 1. Rielly was third, behind Matt Hunwick. The Chipotle Twins leading the Leafs, the way they’ve always envisioned it.

But this is just a start for Rielly and for the Leafs. A beginning. Where this road ends, no one can be sure, this season and the seasons that follow.

But to see Rielly on his game, against the best team in the NHL, playing his game, thinking the game — and that’s so much of what separates the great defencemen from the average ones — erases the problems of a month or more ago.

But it was just one night for him, one step for the Leafs. They won the first half of the game against Washington, lost the second half. What happens in Game 2? The first half or the second half?

Occasionally, in our conversation, he touches his face. Playoff faces are a hockey tradition. They are bumped and bruised and stitched and marked and the closer it gets to the presentation of the Stanley Cup, the worse most players look, never mind those god-awful beards. Before he played a game, Rielly had a playoff face.

There are marks on the right side of his face, too close to the eye for his liking — “that had me worried a bit” — and there are red blotches on his nose, courtesy of the Buffalo Sabres and the position of his own visor.

A few days from now, he will probably own even more of a playoff face. The Capitals play a hard game. They hit and hit hard.

That isn’t Rielly’s game, nor is it necessarily his style. All of this is about growing and learning. And if you win a few games along the way, even better. As his mind raced and the television in his hotel room blared, he couldn’t help but think, over and over: What if we won Game 1?

WASHINGTON — When Lou Lamoriello made the deadline deal for Brian Boyle, he knew the kind of value the playoff-tested centre would bring to the Maple Leafs — and it was certainly on display in Game 1 of the series with the Washington Capitals.

Boyle, who centres Toronto’s fourth line and gets limited and circumstantial ice time, made a strong and meaningful contribution in the Leafs’ playoff opener, even if they wound up on the wrong end of a 3-2 overtime defeat.

Getting just 12 minutes and 13 seconds of ice time, Boyle dominated in the faceoff circle, winning 13-of-17 draws, almost all of them in the defensive zone. That’s a whopping 76% success rate, when most centres hover around the 50% mark.

He also had a rather remarkable four shots on goal in 12 minutes, more than any of the other high-scoring Leafs centreman. The three big Leafs down the middle — Auston Matthews, Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri — managed just six shots against Braden Holtby in Game 1 in almost 54 minutes of ice time. Boyle, who has yet to score as a Leaf, is one of those players who doesn’t have to score to show value.

The Leafs gave up only one even-strength goal in regulation time in Game 1. The power-play goal scored by Washington came after a bad bounce with a 5-on-3 man advantage turning into a 5-on-4 as the goal was being scored.

The Leafs can probably ask more of their centres in Game 2. They can’t likely get much more from Boyle.

Also read: Ex-NHLer Ryane Clowe named coach of Newfoundland Growlers, the Leafs’ new ECHL affiliate


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