Leafs looking for answers on blue line after ‘reality check’

Michael Grabner scored twice in the third to help the New York Rangers hold off the Toronto Maple Leafs for 5-2 win.

TORONTO – It was a night where the Toronto Maple Leafs looked like they were down a few good men.

The first glimpse at a blue line without Morgan Rielly reinforced the power of a No. 1.

In hockey, success flows from the top down. It’s no coincidence that the Leafs suddenly rocketed to respectability this season after No. 1 centre Auston Matthews walked in the door. They had also hit on a quietly effective defence rotation that went Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev, Jake Gardiner in order of minutes played.

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Removing Rielly from the equation disrupted the rhythm and balance. It resulted in a total clunker of a performance against the New York Rangers and a 5-2 loss – unquestionably the ugliest for Toronto since a 7-0 pounding from Los Angeles way back on Nov. 8.

“When your top defenceman Morgan goes down, it’s going to change a lot for everyone,” said Gardiner.

Mike Babcock won’t have to search very hard to isolate teachable moments on the game tape. There were blown coverages and missed assignments right from the word “go.” He started experimenting with new pairings early in the second period.

It wasn’t so much that Rielly left a hole so gaping that he couldn’t be replaced. Gardiner fared reasonably well while skating 26:14 in his spot. However, there is a price to be paid for having Roman Polak (21:40) and Matt Hunwick (20:20) try and punch above their weight class, especially when Connor Carrick (14:49) and seldom-used Frankie Corrado (11:36) struggle mightily behind them.

This falls on the forwards, too, because there simply wasn’t the overall attention to detail you would expect with Rielly in the press box nursing a lower-body injury.

William Nylander lost touch of Brady Skjei on New York’s first goal. Zaitsev found himself defending 1-on-2 despite Toronto enjoying a third-period power play – a sequence that resulted in Michael Grabner springing free for yet another breakaway against Frederik Andersen and ultimately scoring the 4-2 insurance marker.

“Well, we’re missing a great defenceman,” said Polak. “He always has an impact, but I don’t think that’s the excuse for what we did tonight. I think they had too many odd-man rushes and too many breakaways. I think Grabner had like three breakaways and the third one he scored.

“That’s unacceptable.”

The Leafs, naturally, will steadfastly refuse any notion that it was directly tied to Rielly’s absence. After all, they’ll likely have to play without him again when Ottawa visits on Saturday night and perhaps beyond that.

Against a speedy Rangers team that has seen star goalie Henrik Lundqvist recently come under fire, they simply couldn’t match the level of their opponent.

“I don’t think Rielly made us not compete hard enough tonight or not take care of the puck or not stop on defence,” said Babcock. “I don’t think he had anything to do with that. Obviously, the back end was in trouble lots tonight. We weren’t very good.”

And that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? You can only truly be as good as your best player.

Rielly fills that role at a position the Leafs already know needs some upgrades even with him healthy. A game like this only accentuates the issue.

It was billed as a night where Corrado might finally make a deposit in the coach’s trust – what with him dressing for just the second time with the Leafs all season following a conditioning stint in the American Hockey League.

“I think it’s a perfect opportunity for him,” Babcock said after the morning skate. “Rielly getting hurt at the right time for him is great. He just played a whole bunch of (AHL) games, he should be feeling as good about himself as he possibly can, he’s not rusty, he’s none of those things. …

“Why wouldn’t you just go play – let ‘er hang out, put your foot on the gas and worry about fixing it in practice tomorrow.”

Things didn’t go as planned. Corrado found himself plastered to the bench for half a period after taking consecutive penalties and was strangely left on the ice for the final 2:57 after Grabner had scored into an empty net.

How Babcock proceeds with the 23-year-old will be interesting, especially since the coach declined to comment on his performance against the Rangers.

“What I’ll do is just watch the game and go from there instead of me saying anything tonight,” said Babcock.

There may be a call down to the AHL for some extra help. There may be new pairings and a hard skate awaiting the Leafs at practice on Friday afternoon.

They had been a well-oiled machine these last few weeks until losing a key piece of the engine. Now it’ll be a bit more of a struggle to get in gear.

“We’ll just move on and go to work on Saturday,” said Gardiner. “We’ve been really hot lately and it’s probably time for a reality check, I guess.”

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