Rielly’s absence during Maple Leafs’ struggles ‘makes that fire burn’

Nikki Reyes and Chris Johnston discuss a strange day at Maple Leafs practice and when we could see the return of Morgan Rielly.

TORONTO – The hardest part was the watching.

Watching his friends get blown out of their own building by the lottery-bound Chicago Blackhawks before the bye week. Watching Michael Hutchinson’s painful and point-costing last days in blue and white. Watching, through a television, kilometres away, hideous efforts in Buffalo and Pittsburgh.

Watching the Zamboni driver triumph. Watching late-February’s momentum vanish in the blink of a Californian sun. Watching the team captained by the very player whose shot broke your foot creep within one point of stealing your playoff berth.

Eight weeks riding the roller coaster that is the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs can feel like eight years. Especially if you’re Morgan Rielly.

The Leaf who plays more minutes than any other suddenly didn’t have a pen in the nightly narrative.

So, as Toronto’s No. 1 defenceman and longest-serving player watched, he tried to use the 23 games he didn’t dress as lessons, as time to heal not just the fractured foot but his other nagging ailments, as fuel for his return.

Which could be as soon as Tuesday at home versus the Tampa Bay Lightning.

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“Me not been around for eight weeks or so makes that fire burn a little more, makes me want to come back and really have an impact and be a difference-maker,” Rielly said Monday.

“There were lots of ups and downs, and this time of year that’s not a good thing necessarily. You want to be a little bit more consistent than we have been. So, it’s tough to watch, no question about it.”

Rielly turned 26 on Monday, and his removal off injured reserve this week will be a birthday gift not only for Leafs fans, but for a dressing room that has sputtered in his absence.

“He’s a game changer,” John Tavares said. “A player like Morgan Rielly, one of the best defenceman in the league, the way he impacts the game for us in all areas, the leadership he brings, just the calmness — I think just the attitude he has is tremendous for our group. So we certainly miss it. One guy, two guys aren’t gonna replace that.”

The birthday boy practised in full alongside partner Cody Ceci in the club’s hour-long session Monday, taking reps on the second power-play unit. As long as his foot responds well to the activity, all signs point to a green light for Tuesday. Smack on schedule.

“It’s nice seeing him back out there and fully moving. I think he’s playing tomorrow,” Mitch Marner said. “He brings a whole other confidence level to our team, and I think just settles us down in the defensive end as well.”

It wasn’t only the Leafs’ normally robust offence that shrivelled like a California raisin during those three games in San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles.

Without Rielly and now Jake Muzzin (broken hand) to steady the ship, the club’s confidence has taken a blindside hit, and the Florida Panthers finally appear ready to pounce.

“The biggest thing for me, at this time of year especially, is just his voice, his presence around the team, in the locker room, on the bench,” said coach Sheldon Keefe of Rielly.

“We don’t have a lot of guys that I would say are guys that really are the vocal ones, the kind that push and get you going. If you were to ask me who the leaders are in that regard, I would say Rielly and Muzzin are the guys that are the most vocal for us in terms of kind of pushing our team.”

Tavares says Rielly brings a preparation and competitiveness to the rink that is contagious. He’s also the most consistent driver of offence from the back end, and after the Leafs mustered just four goals total last week, a renewed emphasis has been placed on creating dangerous chances.

“Is that a major long-term concern? I mean, I think we’ll be able to figure it out, but we’re getting down to it here,” said Rielly, clear in the mission. “Start playing like ourselves again.”

On a practical level, a healthy Rielly-Ceci pairing means Calle Rosen and Martin Marincin, who skated as the extra pairing Monday, won’t be dealt more minutes than they’re capable of handling. Plus 20-year-old Rasmus Sandin can be sheltered appropriately.

Despite the frustration of being forced to watch the most tumultuous stretch of the Keefe regime from the sidelines, Rielly says the rest gave his other nagging ailments time to heal. He appreciated having injured forward Ilya Mikheyev (wrist) as a workout buddy and a staff full of positive thinkers boosting his spirits through two months of recovery.

“I feel good now,” the birthday boy assured.

With just 13 games left in the race, that should be music to Leafs Nation’s ears.

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