Monday night, Rielly turned the puck over to fellow 23-year-old No. 1 defenceman Seth Jones attempting a stretch pass that wouldn’t, and the Columbus Blue Jackets tied that game on a late odd-man rush en route to an overtime victory.
Skating a team-high 38 shifts, Rielly was on the ice for 34 shot attempts and was the greatest reason the home side controlled 65 per cent of the game’s possession. Rielly scored the tying goal on one of his six shots on target, and made us question why — with his 31st point bumping him ahead of all-star game invitees Jones, Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Drew Doughty in blue-liner scoring — he didn’t get called to the Tampa showcase.
Then, with just 3:05 remaining in a 3-3 game, Rielly’s ambition got the better of him again. Rielly pinched on Matt Duchene. Duchene blew Ron Hainsey’s tires slamming the brakes on a 3-on-1 rush, and Ottawa’s Tom Pyatt drilled the 4-3 winner.
For the second straight outing, a Rielly gaffe cost Toronto standings points and the rested Leafs lost after failing to defeat an injured opponent who limped into Air Canada Centre on the sleepy half of a back-to-back.
“Just some miscommunication between the forward and I. It’s my fault for going,” Rielly said, wearing the Leafs’ fifth loss in their past seven games and final defeat before they scatter for the mandated five-day bye week. Toronto has yet to beat a team in regulation in 2018.
“A little break might not be the worst thing. We’ll come back re-energized. It’s important that the guys in this room take care of our bodies and come back rested and prepared to make a long push.”
Before we get to the happy stuff, let’s dash salt in Wednesday’s Ottawa-inflicted wound: Bobby Ryan was injured, Anderson had been yanked less than 24 hours prior, and coach Guy Boucher revealed that Karlsson (game-high 27:06 played), Duchene (two pretty primary assists), and Derick Brassard were among a group of Sens who all played through the flu.
“Two nights in a row we were in a great position to win the game and good players for us made big mistakes that, in the end, you’d love to have back,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “You win together and you lose together, but there are things we’ve got to fix in order to win every night.”
For all of the Leafs’ well-publicized firepower, their assault on the Sens marked the first time the club scored three goals in one of January’s five home games (we’re not counting shootouts, folks). Only twice in their past 14 have they surpassed the three-goal barrier, something they accomplished four times in their first five.
Through a combo of poor line changes, missed assignments, snake-bitten shooters, and positional brain farts, Toronto has gradually slid from first to seventh league-wide in goals per game. The details are a devil.
“Those are things we can be sharper with and things we will be sharper with as the year goes on,” vowed James van Riemsdyk, who scored on just one of a ridiculous 11 shots on goal (seven more JVR attempts were blocked or veered wide).
Ottawa opened scoring with a Thomas Chabot pass that deflected off the instep of Roman Polak’s skate. It was another defenceman error, and one members of Leafs Nation might find gif-worthy, as the veteran has excused himself from the bottom-pair tryout still being waged by youngsters Andreas Borgman, Connor Carrick and Travis Dermott.
But Rielly’s mistakes are different, because the occasional flaw will give some observers reason to step back from speaking of him in elite terms, even during this, the 2012 first-rounder’s spectacular breakout year.
Babcock spoke tellingly Wednesday of the value of the players you draft, how they wear an invisible team tattoo. Everyone’s a little more invested, both ways.
We saw it in the coach’s strong defence of Rielly during his alternate captain’s 2016-17 struggles and in the off-season effort made to hire stay-at-home veteran Hainsey and shift Rielly to his natural left side.
“He’s just a kid. He might not have been in the league as early if the team had been better, if that makes any sense,” Babcock said.
“The biggest difference, in my opinion, in his game is last year we never played him in any offensive situations at all. We just told him to learn how to play without the puck. Then we brought in a guy named Ron Hainsey who tells him what to do every shift, sits with him on the bench every day, and suddenly he’s not erratic in his play.
“Then he’s learned to shoot the puck, get the puck to the net on a regular basis, and he goes when the opportunity is there and plays defence when the opportunity is not there. He’s growing up.”
Growing up? Learning with a sprinkling of veteran guidance? Sounds a lot like the Leafs as a whole. So does the coach’s assessment of Rielly’s performance on this night.
“I thought he was really, really good,” Babcock said, “and he’d probably like to have the mistake back.”