For the Toronto Maple Leafs, a nightmare scenario on the blueline has occurred with the lower-body injury of Morgan Rielly.
In the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres Tuesday night, Rielly found himself tangled with Buffalo forward William Carrier. Leading to a collision and ultimately resulting in the 22-year-old’s exit from the game.
Already thin on the defense, Rielly’s injury will cause for others on the blueline to slot up. Although they managed to defeat Buffalo, Toronto must rely on Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev.
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It will take a team effort to overcome the loss of Rielly. However, barring any major trade, those two must be the catalyst on the blueline.
This season Zaitsev has enjoyed a stellar rookie season while playing on the top pair. Averaging close to 25 minutes a night half-way through the season. Gardiner, on the other hand, finds himself in third when it comes to minutes played on the blueline.
Expect an increase in minutes in an attempt to see if the team can hide the flaws on defense. Limiting the exposure of their call-up (whether it be Andrew Nielsen, Rinat Valiev, Frankie Corrado or Viktor Loov).
Furthermore, Matt Hunwick has played well lately so expect him to try and anchor the second pairing. Nonetheless, Mike Babcock should not try and expose him by playing over 25 minutes like he did against Buffalo.
Time On The Powerplay
In 42 games, the 25-year-old defenseman has recorded 17 points (1 G 16 A). Also, a good portion of his points has come at even strength and not on the man advantage.
Thus far, Zaistev’s offensive game has slowly come along. Nonetheless, being one of the go-to-guys on the man advantage should provide an opportunity to increase his scoring chances from the point.
As for Gardiner, he has registered 22 points (6G 16A) through 42 games with half his goals coming on the powerplay.
Toronto currently has the second best powerplay in the National Hockey League. Nonetheless, a majority of the points have come from their forwards. It will be intriguing if Zaitsev and Gardiner can jumpstart the offense from the back end while playing against the opponents top lines.
At this point, Toronto continues to play with house money. Expectations for Toronto did include having them in this position, battling for a playoff spot.