Rielly, Marner make difference for Maple Leafs in win over Rangers

Mitch Marner finished with two goals and an assist to lead the Maple Leafs to a 5-3 win over the Rangers Saturday.

TORONTO – Christmas is a time for giving.

So for the second consecutive December night at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, giddy fans gleefully doffed their caps and tossed them on the ice late in another goal-loaded home victory.

The city is so antsy to celebrate a winner, the small detail of a hat trick not actually being scored is of little consequence.

“People are losing their hats for no reason here,” said Mitch Marner, whose presumed third snipe of the night was downgraded to his second upon further review.

“I feel pretty bad for them. If they’re Leaf hats, I’m guessing they’re not cheap. Everything around here is pretty expensive. So, those poor people.”

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“Poor people” feels like a relative term when referring to the 19,466 who rang in Santa SZN by partying as the NHL’s hottest offence poured pucks past under-siege New York backup Alexander Georgiev and rolled the rebuilding New York Rangers 5-3.

Another victory over an inferior Eastern Conference opponent, another ankle injury to a role-playing winger, another showcase for stars Mitchell Marner and Morgan Rielly.

The Maple Leafs capped off a perfect 3-0 week in which they averaged six goals per win and pulled the rug out from under your silly “trap game” theories.

Unfortunately, as was the case in Tuesday’s defeat of New Jersey, the two points came at the expense of a reliable winger’s foot.

Tyler Ennis suffered a broken ankle when he took a Rielly point shot off his right instep and now joins Zach Hyman (ankle sprain) on the sidelines for weeks.

“He was coming on, right? His year didn’t go as good as he wanted last year, and he was starting to come, so it’s unfortunate,” coach Mike Babcock said.

The Leafs will call up one of their deserving Marlies forwards (best bet: Trevor Moore) for Sunday’s game versus Detroit.

Starting on time has been a focal point for the group, and the Leafs accomplished that feat when Patrick Marleau beat out an icing race, then deftly tipped home a Rielly point shot in the first period.

By registering his 30th (!) pre-holiday assist and later sniping his 12th goal, Rielly now has nine points over his past four games, pushing his lead over Ottawa rookie Thomas Chabot in the defenceman scoring race to 42-37.

Rielly — a minus in each of his first five NHL seasons — now co-leads the NHL in plus/minus (+22) and his four penalty minutes are the fewest of any top-40 scoring defenceman.

Somehow, Toronto transformed from the team in desperate need of a No. 1 defenceman to the team with arguably the No. 1 defenceman.

“He thinks he’s in Moose Jaw again now,” said coach Mike Babcock, referring to a junior performance that thrust Rielly to the top of former Leafs GM Brian Burke’s draft list.

“It’s a little different,” Rielly replied, flashing that wry smile, his trademark.

“I know what he means. It’s just about being comfortable. We got a good group. We’re all very comfortable. We know the system. We’re happy with our teammates; we all get along. It’s just a good situation. I think when that happens, players tend to be themselves and play a bit looser and a bit more confident.”

Marner believes Rielly’s confidence is at an all-time high.

“And that’s great for us forwards. When he’s jumping in the rush, it’s usually a 4-on-2 or a 4-on-3. If he gets that puck, he’s deadly right now, finding guys and shooting it. Either way, it makes the other team think about covering him more than a forward at the moment. It leaves someone open,” Marner says.

Toronto’s increasing emphasis on activating its defence has become a focal point of practice, and the dividends are paying off.

Rielly is the smartest at picking his spots and executing, but Jake Gardiner, too, is projecting for back-to-back 50-point campaigns. And rookie Travis Dermott is taking notes on the third pair.

Dermott told me recently that the coaching staff shows him clips of Rielly’s decision-making as a teaching tool.

“His maturation process, I’ve been able to see it firsthand, and it’s been quite the journey for him. Each and every year, he adds a little bit to the arsenal to make him the elite defenceman that he is,” Nazem Kadri said.

“His skating ability is what sticks out for me. He’s able to hop into the play so easily, so effortlessly—and that release with his wrist shot is impeccable.”

Toronto, as a whole, looked impeccable when it mattered, rolling around the New York zone and generating 13 high-danger chances and second-chance opportunities aplenty.

“They’re definitely moving the puck well. High-speed hockey,” Henrik Lundqvist said. “Especially if you’re looking at the forwards, they probably have the most skilled group in the league.”

The Rangers kept lingering around long past the point you’d think appropriate, like the family on your block that waits until May 2-4 to haul down the Christmas lights.

They killed off an Adam McQuaid double-minor penalty and the prolonged 6-on-5 that preceded it — a golden opportunity for all those Leafs on the all-star ballot to wrest the night away — and Georgiev, superb Tuesday in a victory over resurgent Anaheim, fended a barrage of shots from Auston Matthews and John Tavares.

Neal Pionk was the beneficiary of a classic “good road period” as he whistled an old-fashioned slapper high and clean far-side on Frederik Andersen with five minutes remaining in the second frame. Late in the second, fourth-liner Ryan Strome whiffed on an open net that could’ve given the visitors a stunning lead.

Heading into the third period knotted at one, the pair of Original Six squads — one rebuilding, one mercifully not — gave play-by-play deity Bob Cole, calling a now-rare Saturday night national game in Toronto, a tight one to soundtrack.

For fans of a certain age, simply Cole’s call alone felt like Christmas came early. Oh, baby.

Marner presumably snapped the tie early in the third period when he slammed home a rebound after a key John Tavares offensive-zone face-off win, but he pointed to new linemate, Andreas Johnsson, who would eventually be awarded the goal (hence the false-alarm hat trick).

Then Rielly pounced into the zone to snipe his 12th.

Just when the game appeared to be on ice, centre Kevin Hayes—the Rangers’ most valuable trade rental—tucked a Filip Chytil rebound, his first of two on the night, narrowing but never closing the gap.

The Tavares-to-Marner connection struck once more, this time Marner dekeing Georgiev backhand on a gorgeous feed from his centreman.

The winger, making a conscious effort to drive the paint and shake his pass-first rep, added an all-hustle unassisted empty-netter and has now scored six goals in four games.

Rielly has noticed Marner pulling the trigger more often.

“As he should,” Rielly said. “Me and Ron [Hainsey] smiled at each other. It feels like just a week ago or two weeks ago he had six goals. Now he’s at 12. He’s obviously got something going.

“You talk about confidence — he’s a player that thrives when he has confidence, and his linemates love playing with him. As a D-man, you want to be on the ice when he’s out there because of his vision and what he’s able to do with the puck.

“He’s a guy who works very hard for everything he gets. You look at the way he’s playing, the way he drives that line, he’s been one of the best players in the world now for a few months.”

The Maple Leafs still have one more bit of business to take care of before the holiday break, as another severe underdog, the Detroit Red Wings, fly to town Sunday.

“We like playing here, we’re comfortable, we think we’ve got a good team. Now we’ve got to play right though, and we understand that,” Babcock said.

“Christmas — I hope everyone got their mom a nice gift. It’s a real important thing you do.”

Hope she likes Leaf hats.


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