If last night’s game was any indication, Morgan Rielly is way more important to the Toronto Maple Leafs blueline than many originally thought.
The Toronto Maple Leafs looked lost last night as soon as the puck dropped versus the New York Rangers, a team they had beaten handily a week ago. For the first time in months, we saw Mike Babcock put the pairings in a blender during the game.
They looked unsure and tentative in their own zone, which allowed the Rangers to create offensive zone pressure and gave them the momentum.
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It was a pretty rough night for the team all around. The powerplay, 2nd in the NHL heading into last night’s game, was abysmal, as Toronto went 0-for-3 on the man-advantage and allowed Michael Grabner to score shorthanded.
Matt Hunwick deflected the puck in behind Frederik Andersen with his face. Frank Corrado, dressed for his 2nd NHL game of the season, took 2 penalties in a span of four minutes and didn’t play particularly well.
Even Jake Gardiner, pegged to fill Rielly’s role, looked unlike himself for the first half of the game, almost as if the role was weighing on him a little. However, by the third period, he seemed to be back to his old self, skating effortlessly and making rushes up the ice that allowed the Leafs to gain zone entry and sustain a forecheck.
If there was one bright spot, probably the only one, it was Zach Hyman, who was a beast on the forecheck and penalty kill all night. His shorthanded goal at the end of the 2nd period is what brought the Leafs back into the game.
Is Rielly’s absence to blame for last night? Not necessarily, according to Mike Babcock:
“I don’t think [he] made us not compete hard enough tonight or not take care of the puck or not stop on defense. I don’t think he had anything to do with that. Obviously the back end was in trouble lots tonight. We weren’t very good.” (The Score)
Rielly’s absence is definitely not an excuse for the Leafs not showing up to play last night. His role on this team is virtually irreplaceable. When you take the number one defenseman out of any team in the National Hockey League, it is going to be a tough adjustment.
But his absence leads to players playing outside of roles they are comfortable in. While the Leafs were no defensive darlings before they lost Rielly, each defenseman was playing a role on the blueline that they could excel in.
Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick are no longer 2nd pair defensemen. Neither Connor Carrick or Frank Corrado are comfortable playing on their off-side, if last night’s game was any indication of that. The defense pairs were switched up so many times last night there was no consistency to the blueline by the end of the game.
When the defense is unsure and hesitant, that bleeds over to the forwards, and then you’ve got almost an entire team that’s sitting back and not playing the way they should to have success.
Fortunately for the Leafs, it doesn’t seem like Rielly’s injury is too serious, but there still is no definitive timeline for his return. If he doesn’t play on Saturday against Ottawa and the Leafs put on a performance (or a lack thereof) like they did on Thursday night, there are going to be a lot more questions than answers.