TORONTO – Morgan Rielly is a four-tool defenceman, the kind of player who can beat you with his feet or hands or mind. He’s even got the home-run pass in his holster and used it to great effect Monday as the Toronto Maple Leafs started to make amends for the twin blowouts in Boston.
When people talk about Toronto getting back to its “game” in Game 3 what they really mean is the Leafs unleashed the speed of their wingers to spread out the Bruins defensive coverage.
It was as reliable as a simple math equation for Mike Babcock’s team this season. One plus one always equalled two.
Except when the playoffs began they could hardly get anything moving out of their own zone. Boston activated its blue line and used an aggressive forecheck to scramble the numbers, and the Leafs appeared stuck in mud.
Back on home ice Monday, Rielly started the clearing the path by skating a loose puck to safety around Frederik Andersen’s net. With Patrice Bergeron marking him closely and Brad Marchand standing up on the half-wall, he banked a pass off the boards and through defenceman Kevan Miller – relegating three Boston players to a chase position in an instant.
Rielly had to thread the needle perfectly. Here’s what he saw on the play:
When Mitch Marner expertly handled the bouncing puck in stride at the far blue line, the Leafs found themselves with a 2-on-1. The winger has vision to match his deceptive speed and slid it over to Patrick Marleau’s blade, just beyond the backchecking Torey Krug’s reach.
That strike made it 2-1 and sent a surge of confidence through the Toronto bench. It was how a team that scored the third-most goals in the NHL this season had become accustomed to inflicting damage. It was also proof that it could work against the Bruins.
“We work on that stuff. We work on the weak-side winger blowing out of the zone to make it big and draw their ‘D-man’ back,” said Rielly. “I’m honestly not sure if [Marner] came off the bench or not, but that’s the way it looked. When I looked up, I saw him, and you just try to get it to him. You knew it was going to be in the air, but he’s good enough that he can pick it up. He made a good pass to Patty and Patty made a great play to be heavy on his stick.”
As the teams regroup with an extra day off before Game 4 on Thursday, you can expect the adjustments to go beyond personnel matchups. They’ve played 180 minutes head-to-head and can dive deeper into specific tendencies.
The Bruins have zeroed in on Toronto’s ability to stretch the ice out in transition and are looking to bottle that up – with coach Bruce Cassidy noting that it’s one thing to see it on video and quite another to experience it first-hand on the ice. He likes his defencemen to jump off the blue line in the offensive zone to extend a cycle. But they need to be mindful of a Leafs winger drifting alone in the neutral zone when that happens.
“That’s the trade-off,” said Cassidy. “We’ve gotten some good offensive zone play by being active and they’re trying to get going the other way. We’ve caught them – I don’t want to use the word ‘cheating’ – but leaning the other way.
“We have to balance O-zone play: risk/reward vs. their stretch ‘blow-the-zone’ type of mentality. That’s what it comes down to.”
It requires defencemen to trust their instincts. According to Charlie McAvoy, an assertive distributor on the Bruins back end, it might even require taking the foot off the gas pedal occasionally and backing out of the offensive zone.
Just to be safe.
“They want to use their speed at all times, so you really got to make sure you’re counting five guys all the time, keeping them in front of ya,” said McAvoy. “Because they will – they’ll go for those stretches, those breakaways, it’s almost kind of like you cheat the game a little. But that’s their style and they do it very well.
“They have a lot of fast players who you have to respect and you’ve got to make sure you have a good gap on them because guys like Marner, [Kasperi] Kapanen, [Zach] Hyman, they can all skate really well.”
You can find dozens of examples this season where Rielly or teammate Jake Gardiner put opponents on their heels by completing a long stretch pass or even flipping a puck into an open area where a forward could pick it up in stride. Plays like these:
The Leafs are especially effective at doing it in the second period, when opponents face a longer skate to the bench for line changes and are more prone to getting caught. It was only minutes apart in the middle frame on Monday when Rielly sent Kapanen in for a breakaway with a stretch pass before hitting Marner for the 2-on-1.
For opposing teams, identifying the problem isn’t as easy as stopping it. When the Dallas Stars visited Toronto on March 14, coach Ken Hitchcock spoke at length about preparing for Babcock’s stretch plays before his team lost 6-5 in a high-speed shootout.
“It causes all kinds of problems on every little detail,” Hitchcock said. “If you don’t change properly, he burns you. If you don’t have the right read when you think you’re forechecking the next thing you know he’s airmailed something over top of you and you’re in trouble. He’s done a great job of getting his team to buy into speed without the puck.
“Everybody talks about how quick the game is with the puck – it’s no faster now than it used to be, but where it’s really quick is the reckless play without [it] and he’s got his team on top of that, especially in this building.”
Fortunately for the Leafs, Game 4 will be played at Air Canada Centre. If they can overextend the Bruins coverage and make their way freely through the neutral zone, they just might go back to Boston tied 2-2.