The Toronto Maple Leafs ended their three-game losing streak against the Tampa Bay Lightning with Morgan Rielly bringing a calming influence.
With each passing game, it’s tough to get a sense of whether the Toronto Maple Leafs are starting to figure things out or going to crumble at the first sign of adversity.
As JD Bunkis of Sportsnet so eloquently described it, it’s like being in the mafia and reminds us of that famous scene from “The Godfather: Part 3” when Michael Corleone is talking about going legitimate.
Unfortunately, Corleone realizes at that moment how tough it is and the realization that life in the mob is almost impossible to escape. This led to him uttering those famous words.
"“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”"
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Safe to say that at a time where some Leafs fans were wondering whether it was time to give up on this season, the team beats a legitimate contender in the Tampa Bay Lightning. Talk about pulling you back in.
After losing three-straight games against the worst teams in the Western Conference, Toronto picked up a crucial against a team they appear to be destined to face in Round 1 of the playoffs. there certainly highs and lows in this game but when it was all said and done, the Leafs found a way to dig deep when the moment called for it.
There was some reason for optimism with Morgan Rielly returning to the lineup. It’s no secret his presence was sorely missed especially with Jake Muzzin also out especially off the ice when you hear him talk about what gets the team in trouble defensively.
"“If we’re able to break out clean and quick and create speed that way, it just seems to be smoother for us,” Rielly told Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. “It’s when we go back for pucks and we get beat back to pucks and we lose races and don’t break out clean that’s when we tend to get hemmed in a little bit.“So I think that if we focus on the smaller things and really execute them, it creates more opportunities for us to move the puck forward with some speed, some confidence.”"
Rielly has always had a grasp of what makes the Leafs successful and what gets the team in trouble and while he wasn’t performing at the level he’s capable of, he gets to turn it around in the most crucial stretch of the season.
Seeing how the Leafs started the game by essentially dominating the Lightning in the first period (with a 62.16 CF%) was refreshing considering the first period has generally been the worst for the Leafs. In the second, it was clear that Tampa was going to pushback and while they got the equalizer, Toronto didn’t let that phase them going into the third.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe made sure to give Rielly some praise and noting what the Leafs were seriously missing during his absence.
Even Auston Matthews admitted that Rielly didn’t look out of place when he got back on the ice in this game. This is something the Leafs had a tough time trying to replace during Rielly’s absence because we’ve seen time and time again how Rielly’s awareness is something this team doesn’t really have.
Rielly played 21:47 in his return and you can bet that number will increase especially with the Boston Bruins coming up and the margin for error really slim.
This game was also a reminder of just how important it is for the top players to be engaged and that was the case with Matthews scoring his 47th goal of the season and directing seven shots on net.
Getting both goals on the power play should also be a major confidence boost considering the Leafs’ play with the man advantage has been a major issue and part of the reason why their offence has struggled.
If they want to sustain this stretch, it will be important for the Leafs to remain engaged and find that consistency as soon as the puck is dropped.
What did you think about Rielly’s play in his return? Can he continue to provide a boost with an important stretch of games? Let us know in the comments below.