So, the Toronto Maple Leafs are playing on Long Island?
Well, two things are guaranteed.
Captain John Tavares will get booed every time he touches the puck (yep).
And the Leafs will build themselves a 3-1 lead on the road (yep).
But unlike Toronto’s four previous 3-1 leads on this two-week U.S. tour, the Leafs held onto this one like a favourite childhood memory.
The score at the halfway mark was the score at the final buzzer, as the Leafs resisted the urge to softly cheat for offence and waited out the patient New York Islanders with a controlled 3-1 victory.
Here are six takeaways from the type of W that makes a coach happy.
‘Insanity’ that Rielly has never been an all-star
So, it should come as no surprise that the club’s most important blueliner has stepped up in all facets with Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl sidelined.
On Saturday, Rielly led all Leafs in ice time (25:33), shots (four), points (two), takeaways (two) and plus/minus (plus-2). He was simply the best player in the game.
“A catalyst,” Tavares said. “One of the best defencemen I’ve played with. I think even as good as he is and as much recognition as he gets, I still think he’s looked upon as a little bit underrated.”
“Definitely,” Mitch Marner said. “I mean, if you look at his stats, what he brings to our team, to not be at least a one-time all-star, it’s insanity, to be fairly honest. It’s crazy. But the thing about Morgan — the thing we all love about him — is he’s the same guy through it all.
“Hopefully, he gets what he deserves here soon.”
Rielly’s ability to trigger, and finish, the offence is one thing, but his gap control and effort to bust up plays in his own end is where his greatest strides have been made. Take this sliding stop on Anthony Beauvillier:
“You take Muzzin and Holl out of our lineup, you not only rely on your younger guys to step up and take on more, but inevitably Rielly and [T.J.] Brodie are going to take on a lot more as well. Minutes go up a little bit, but also the minutes just get harder, you know? You’re not sharing the D-zone face-offs, like you might have with Muzzin and Holler in there,” Keefe explained.
“He seems to have no real limit to what he can do. Of course, we have to be intelligent about it. But he is intelligent about it. He doesn’t overstretch shifts. He knows when to change when he gets in tough spots. He seems to have another gear to be able to push through and use his legs to get out of trouble. So, I think we’re just seeing him continue to improve as a player.”
Mrazek’s finest performance in Blue and White
It took until the fourth month of the season, but Kyle Dubas finally saw a glimmer of hope that his hefty off-season investment might pay off.
Yes, it was against the NHL’s 30th-ranked offence, but Petr Mrazek turned in his best 60 minutes as Leaf, hanging tough as the Toronto was outshot 28-23 and withstood the home team’s third-period press.
Shortly after surrendering a goal to Zach Parise in the first period, Mrazek stoned Cal Clutterbuck on a breakaway — a key moment that allowed the Leafs to settle down and respond.
Mrazek admits the first half of the season has been tough on him, but with Toronto’s defence boxing out and allowing him to see the first shot, he played the shooters aggressively.
“He’s worked extremely hard since his [groin] injury to get back, and it’s nice to see him come out here and play with confidence and swagger and help us win,” Marner said.
With all-star Jack Campbell already starting a career-high in games and hitting his first lull, trust in Mrazek could go a long way down the stretch.
“Petr is an extremely happy guy. I think he really takes a lot of pride in his work. He enjoys being at the rink,” Rielly said. “We were lucky to add him in the offseason, and it’s great for him to play well tonight. He’s going to be a big part of our group. So, if he can get rolling and playing with confidence, that’s great.”
Clark Gillies, rest in peace
“He was bigger than life,” New York coach Barry Trotz said. “When you saw Clark Gillies, you thought Islander.”
A Hall of Famer and four-time Stanley Cup champion, the prototypical power forward led on the ice and off it, raising money for charity and giving his heart to the Islanders community long after he hung them up.
As a spotlight illuminated his Number 9 hanging from the UBS Arena rafters, Gillies was honoured with a stirring tribute video and moment of silence.
Skating with heavy hearts, the Islanders wore No. 9 patches on their alternate sweaters, and the loyal fans erupted with cheers with nine minutes remaining in each period. A lovely touch.
Long-serving Islander Tavares made certain to acknowledge Gillies before taking a single question post-game: “I’m very sad to hear of his passing. He was tremendous to me with my time here, and obviously made a hell of an impact on the ice and off it as well. He will have a legacy that lasts here forever.”
Some third-line love
Even with Ondrej Kase out of the lineup, Toronto’s third line has been fantastic.
The Ilya Mikheyev–David Kämpf– Pierre Engvall trio was the only group that earned Keefe’s praise after Toronto’s collapse to the Rangers Wednesday, and that checking unit was dominant again Saturday, funnelling 75 per cent of shot attempts at Varlamov when they were on the ice.
With the score knotted 1-1 very late in the first frame, a strong Mikheyev forecheck loosened a puck that Engvall pounced on. As he cut to the crease, the clock was in single digits.
The Leafs bench screamed, “Shoot!”
But Engvall hung on for the deke before slipping the puck across the goal line with 0.3 seconds to spare.
“He just keeps getting better and better,” Marner said. “To fake shot to pull the backhand there, that’s a pretty silky move. It’s a hard move to pull off. He’s a guy that has a lot of skill in him, though, and it’s nice seeing him show it out there tonight. Luckily enough, it went in before that buzzer.”
“A big momentum gainer,” Keefe confirmed of the eventual game-winner. “He’s gaining confidence. And I’m gaining confidence in him, in terms of using him in any role, with any line, and more importantly against any line on the opposition.”
High praise for a guy who spent long stretches of last season in the coach’s doghouse.
Dahlström is back, baby
With Justin Holl readying his return Wednesday against the Anaheim Ducks, Carl Dahlström’s time in the Leafs lineup may be short — but it was sweet.
The 26-year-old Swede broke a hand two years and two franchises ago, during a January 2020 game for the Winnipeg Jets, and had not seen NHL action since. He’s dealt with COVID, a broken foot and bounced around the taxi squad and the farm.
After Alex Biega went minus-2 at Madison Square Garden during Wednesday’s “soft and purposeless” game, the Leafs wanted to check what else they had in the cupboard.
“Good a time as any to give him a chance,” Keefe said. “He is building off the good play he’s had with the Marlies with good gap control. He is a big guy with a long stick and closes on things that way. He uses those tools to defend.”
“Exciting time. I see myself as a two-way defenceman, always trying to bring that steady game and being reliable,” the 26-year-old said on the eve of his NHL comeback.
“I’ve been itching for two years now trying to prepare myself for when the opportunity comes.”
Dahlström began the night with “tingles,” he said, and finished a plus-1 with some PK work in 12 mostly sheltered minutes.
Why did he opt for the Leafs in free agency?
“I’ve always liked their style of game — very fast, talented,” Dahlström said. “I want to compete and play with the best.
“And with the Marlies in the same city, knowing I hadn’t played a lot in the last two years, I decided it’s a good opportunity if I was going to be sent down knowing I was going to be in the same city.”
Daniel-san waxes on about his Isles love on The Tonight Show
Superfan and Cobra Kai star Ralph Macchio spent a healthy chunk of his appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s show this week speaking about the energy in Nassau Coliseum, getting his very own hockey card, and that time he and Fallon took in an Islanders playoff game together.