In a bitter slice of irony, it was a crisply fired puck that never reached the Toronto Maple Leafs’ net Sunday that wrought worlds more damage than the eight that bulged the twine.
Morgan Rielly was trying to do the right thing when his left foot ended up in the precisely wrong spot: directly in line with an Aleksander Barkov blast at close range that, thanks to Monday’s afternoon’s CT scan, we now know fractured his foot.
The most-used, longest-serving Maple Leaf will be sidelined a minimum of eight weeks, and by the time he’s fit to return to action, Toronto’s now-tenuous playoff fate could already be settled.
Rielly joins regulars Ilya Mikheyev, Jake Muzzin and Trevor Moore on a crowded injured reserve that, yes, is clearing salary-cap space but clouding the hopes of talent-rich roster than has been dealt repeated rounds of adversity.
Will this young core allow themselves to be defined by this rash of hard-luck injuries, or will they, like Pittsburgh has this season, grow stronger for persevering through it?
Many a critic has questioned the Leafs’ grit, a characteristic whose definition can be subjective in hockey circles.
But since Christmas, two Leafs defenders have now finished out the majority of a road game on a fracture foot (Muzzin did so in New Jersey on Dec. 27) and hobbled out of the rink on their own power.
“He’s a team-first guy and he’s out there doing everything he can for us,” coach Sheldon Keefe said only a few days ago, recognizing Rielly had already been pushing through the pain of a lingering, unspecified, lower-body ailment.
“He’s an important guy for our team, and we’ve seen the improvements with his game.”
Today, Keefe is staring directly into the maw of his first crisis in his new gig, just a week after setting a franchise record with 15 wins in his first 20 games.
So perhaps he was in denial or holding out faint hope when his most trusted defenceman was standing in pain and getting checked over by the team’s medical staff post-game Sunday. At the time, Keefe said he thought Rielly was “fine” but didn’t sound certain.
Suddenly, little is.
In the midst of a three-game losing skid that has seen two quick (and justifiable) goalie pulls, odd-man rushes galore and 17 goals allowed, Rielly is the last player (outside of No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen) the Leafs can afford to lose.
He plays in all situations, contributes to both special teams, and holds a strong voice in the dressing room. He’s been munching minutes (24:15, both a career and team high) and driving offence.
The injury to Muzzin — who was still walking around with a boot on his foot in Florida — has already exposed the Leafs’ weakest position, with call-up Martin Marincin seeing some top-four nights.
The optimist, however, spots two things.
One: That the forced rest will serve Rielly well in the long run. After scoring more goals (20) than anyone else at his position last season and finishing fifth in the Norris vote, he’d taken his first step backward in years. Despite consistently downplaying it, he’s been hurting.
Two: Hope arrives in the form of a teenage Swede named Rasmus Sandin, full of confidence and fresh off wowing at the world juniors, claiming a bronze medal and the tournament’s top defenceman honours.
GM Kyle Dubas won’t hesitate to burn the first year of Sandin’s entry-level contract now. There’s no choice anymore.
So, Sandin runs right into the fire Tuesday versus the New Jersey Devils, as the season of turmoil takes another drastic turn.
Two months of life without Rielly: It’s either going to steel them or do them in.