TORONTO — When you’re sitting where the Maple Leafs are in the standings and the NHL’s best team rolls through town, there’s a temptation to shrug your shoulders after seeing them handed a 4-1 loss.
As in: “Oh, what did you expect? On to the next one.”
Internally, however, it was actually a night where an organization playing the long game could walk away feeling encouraged. For what the Chicago Blackhawks do better than any team in the league is force opponents to make unenviable matchup decisions because their top two forward lines can both break you.
“Well, which is the top group?” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock.
The way Toronto chose to handle that dilemma put the spotlight on two players that have impressed the Leafs’ brass this season. And both Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri showed that they were more than up to the task again.
Rielly and partner Matt Hunwick drew the Kane assignment while Kadri, Leo Komarov and Michael Grabner went head-to-head with the Toews trio. Normally the Leafs would have used all of those players together.
“We split them and tried to have the D against one and the forwards against the other,” Babcock explained. “In the end, 5-on-5 we were fine.”
Against the reigning Stanley Cup champions that is an accomplishment. A moral victory, sure, but an important one during a season dedicated to development.
Rielly, in particular, should be the source of considerable optimism in these parts.
He is still only 21 years old and learning what he can be at this level. Babcock has been careful not to put too much on his plate, which is why he
hasn’t been used very much on the power play.
That’s allowed him to focus entirely on the task of keeping Toronto’s most dangerous opponents at bay.
After a recent game against St. Louis, Rielly acknowledged that it was daunting to watch video of Vladimir Tarasenko and formulate a plan to stop him. But he didn’t seem the least bit bothered by Friday’s matchup against Kane, Panarin and Artem Anisimov.
“I’m just getting ready like every other player in this room,” said Rielly. “I want to compete hard, play well and help the team win. That’s pretty much it.”
The fact that the Leafs controlled 60 per cent of even-strength shot attempts with Rielly on the ice spoke to a successful night. He even scored a goal and earned more power play time than usual because Babcock felt he was playing better than Dion Phaneuf and Jake Gardiner.
That could become a trend.
Babcock has vowed to give Rielly more of an opportunity with the man advantage eventually, which should boost his already respectable offensive totals. He saw the most ice time against Chicago with 22:07 and has slowly been creeping closer to the team lead in that department for the season.
So, yes, it was a game where Kane and Panarin inflicted damage on the Leafs but virtually all of it came with the man advantage.
Had the home team not paraded to the penalty box it would have had a legitimate chance to halt Chicago’s winning streak at nine games.
“These are holding, hooking, holding, high-sticking, high-sticking, cross-checking,” said Babcock, reading off the game sheet. “You can’t be short-handed six times.”
If you’re looking for one other area where Rielly excels, it’s discipline. He’s taken only six penalty minutes all season.
There really isn’t much he doesn’t do for the Leafs and that’s a positive sign in the big picture. On the nights when he faces the toughest challenge you truly get a sense of how much potential there is for him to become a special player.
“He’s a real good (No. 2 defenceman) for sure,” Babcock said during an appearance on Hockey Central at Noon this week. “Is he a (No. 1)? We’re going to watch together and figure it out. I really like him. I think he’s got huge upside, I love how he can get the puck to the net, I love how conscientious he’s becoming defensively.”
The more you watch, the more there is to like.