Morgan Rielly was in no mood Wednesday to discuss his own fortunes in this year’s NHL playoffs but his answers about Auston Matthews were just as revealing.
“Yeah he puts a lot of pressure on himself to be great,” Rielly said after the Toronto Maple Leafs finished practising and media types wanted to know if Matthews’s big goal in Monday’s win over the Boston Bruins relieved the self-imposed pressure enough for him to get back to being his star self.
“I think that’s a common theme when you look at the best players in the league, so I think for him to go out there, play a great game and score a big goal for us, it’s a good feeling,” Rielly said. “Moving forward, I think he can just go out there and be himself. I think that’s good for us.”
The same could be said about Rielly, whose play on defence for the Leafs in their lopsided losses in the first two games was shocking. The 23-year-old who was so composed all season in taking over the role as the top defenceman on the Maple Leafs looked overwhelmed.
Rielly and partner Ron Hainsey were overmatched in Game 1 of the first-round series against the Bruins’ big line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. In Game 2, they saw less of the line as the defence pair of Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev were put into that meat-grinder, but there was still lots of embarrassment to go around.
Rielly’s minus-three plus-minus rating after the first two games was flattering, considering the Bergeron line collectively ran up 20 points in the first two games.
None of this was supposed to happen to the Leafs’ best defenceman. After a four-year apprenticeship, during which the fans and media debated whether he would ever be a No. 1 defenceman, the 2017 playoffs were Rielly’s coming-out party.
In those six games against the Washington Capitals, Rielly took a significant step forward from the regular season, where he and former partner Matt Hunwick were often the second pairing because head coach Mike Babcock wanted Rielly to get better at killing penalties and playing in his own end. The Leafs lost the series in six games but five went to overtime and Rielly was a central figure in most of them thanks to his play at both ends of the ice.
The progress continued this season, with Rielly and new partner Hainsey installed as the top pair. That plus a regular spot back on the power play saw Rielly finish with 52 points, the best mark of his career and almost double last season’s 27. Not bad for someone at the ripe old age of 23.
But the first two games of the Bruins series were a slap in the face. Not so for Game 3, which the Leafs won 4-2 to cut Boston’s series lead to 2-1. Rielly may have been third among the Leafs defencemen in ice time at 20 minutes 10 seconds, but he was back to his commanding self on the ice, clearing the defensive zone quickly and not being shy about firing stretch passes up the ice.
One of those passes connected with Mitch Marner and led to Patrick Marleau’s first goal of the game early in the second period. That tied the score 2-2 after goaltender Frederik Andersen (who also righted himself in that game) let in the second of two soft goals. Rielly also had an assist on a first-period power-play goal.
Rielly declined to speak about the resurgence on an individual basis, but it was clear his pride was stung in the first two games.
“It was a group thing,” he said. “You look at the score of the games, we all were not happy with it. You took that personally. When 20 guys take that personally that can make a difference.”
Babcock joked Rielly’s mother descended on Toronto from their native West Vancouver to get her son straightened out.
“He was outstanding,” Babcock said. “His mom came to town, gave him a little bit of a tightening.”
When this was put to Rielly, the only response was an exasperated eye roll and a glare at the offending media wisenheimer.
The conversation quickly turned to the Bruins’ big line, which was blanked in Game 3, and what needs to be done to ensure that continues.
“Be hard on them, be competitive, don’t give them too much time and space,” Rielly said. “In my opinion, they’re one of the best lines in hockey for a number of reasons, so it’s important we stay on them. Don’t give them chances to score in the power play. You’ve got to be hard on those guys.”
Then someone asked if Marchand – whose antics, from kissing to jabbing his stick into any soft spot on an opponent, could turn Mr. Rogers into a homicidal maniac – was the most annoying player he ever came across. Rielly showed he’s now been around the block enough to know better than to poke any hornet’s nest.
“Ah, no,” came the reply. “He’s a good player and has been for a long time. That’s the toughest thing about him, his speed and skill.”
The Leafs lineup on Thursday night will be the same as it was in Monday’s game. Dominic Moore will remain as the fourth-line centre and Tomas Plekanec will stay between Marner and Marleau as centre Nazem Kadri serves the last of his three-game suspension. Forward Leo Komarov can’t play due to a leg injury, so Andreas Johnsson will get his second playoff game.