BOSTON – They’re back, healthy and ready to log big minutes. Both of them.
It’s not like a Saturday-night divisional showdown between two likely playoff opponents and two of the hottest teams in hockey needed to give fans any more reason to tune in, but the Toronto Maple Leafs’ trip to Boston was given a double shot of good news at the morning skates.
The Leafs welcome back top defenceman and power-play quarterback Morgan Rielly (upper body) after he spent the past six games on injured reserve.
"Legs are good. Lots of rest, and I didn’t have to do too many bag skates, so it’s good timing, I guess," smiled Rielly, whose club went a remarkable 5-1 in his absence. “You want to make a difference, but the team has played well. It’s um… try not to mess it up.
“When you get a chance to match up against a team like this, it’s important to come out, put our best foot forward and put forth a team effort we can be proud of."
The Bruins are thrilled to dress top-pair rookie Charlie McAvoy, who missed four games since undergoing a successful ablation procedure to treat an abnormal heart rhythm.
“I’ll probably do a couple short shifts to start,” McAvoy said. “It’s an important game. That always makes it more exciting.”
In the midst of a four-game winning streak in which they’ve outscored the opposition 16-3, Toronto also sees the return of Rielly’s top-pair defence partner, Ron Hainsey, who sat out the past two games with the flu.
"Just general fun of having a house full of kids and sick people. Not much to report," Hainsey deadpanned. "Everything seems under control here. Back-to-back wins home and away, a couple shutouts—couldn’t ask for more."
Roman Polak (viral infection) also rejoined the Leafs at TD Garden, meaning coach Mike Babcock had to sit three defenceman of the nine practising.
In a decision that earned round of digital applause from Leafs fans on Twitter, Babcock elected to dress rookie Travis Dermott and Connor Carrick — two defenders whose possession metrics have been excellent — as his third pairing.
"I don’t remember going back for too many pucks against the Islanders and the Rangers," said Carrick, who is enjoying the bump in ice time. "That’s usually when you’re able to offer the best version of yourself."
Emergency Marlies call-up Justin Holl, who scored in both his NHL contests, was returned to the AHL.
The rugged Polak (officially on IR) and Andreas Borgman will be scratched.
Babcock said his lineup decision was not difficult.
"Just watch the hockey," Babcock said.
"Anybody who has been in the NHL knows the measure is not one or two games. Everybody has one or two [good] games, but it is your level watermark. So what you do 82 nights and how you can compete on a regular basis, that is why the stars are the stars. They have the mental toughness to do it all the time, not just their skill set. It’s a challenge for all the young guys, but they have done a good job."
The Bruins have defined "good job." Boston has earned standings points in 19 of their past 20 outings and have looked dangerous even without McAvoy and top scorer Brad Marchand (suspension) in their lineup.
As captain Zdeno Chara celebrates his 1,400th game Saturday, the Bruins hold the league’s best goals-against average (2.37) and a three-point cushion on the Leafs in the Atlantic Division race.
"We’re chasing a team with [four] games in hand, so it’s a bit of hill to climb there, but certainly you’d prefer to get home ice," Hainsey said.
"You end up in a series with Boston or Tampa that goes six, seven games, that home ice will be very important, so we’ll keep grinding for it."
Maple Leafs Projected Lines
Bruins Projected Lines
Heinen – Bergeron – Pastrnak
DeBrusk – Krejci – Spooner
Schaller – Nash – Backes
Vatrano – Kuraly – Czarnik
Chara – McAvoy
Krug – Carlo
Grzelcyk – McQuaid