How Ryan O’Reilly factors into Maple Leafs’ best last test in Boston

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Ryan O'Reilly (90) skates during the second period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Buffalo, N.Y. Acquired from the St. Louis Blues last week along with fellow veteran forward Noel Acciari, O'Reilly is a Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe Trophy winner with a blend of swagger, humour, confidence, post-season pedigree and drive. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jeffrey T. Barnes

They call Ryan O’Reilly “The Factor,” a nickname bestowed upon the left shot roughly a decade ago, when the right-leaning Bill O’Reilly (no relation) had the highest-rated cable news show in the U.S.

Ryan can’t remember which one of his heady Colorado Avalanche teammates coined the nickname — it was either John-Michael Liles or Paul Stastny — but the shoe fits.

The decorated and determined O’Reilly is poised to be the greatest X-factor in a Toronto Maple Leafs forward group that has appeared a smidge incomplete over the 14 games the centreman missed while recovering from surgery on his fractured finger.

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“It feels 100 per cent,” O’Reilly assured Toronto reporters before hopping a club charter to Boston for Thursday’s return faceoff against hockey’s version of Thanos.

“Going in and going right into the fire here.”

Versatile and reliable in all three zones, O’Reilly has scored thrice and added a pair of assists in his eight games for the Maple Leafs while seeing a carousel of linemates.

At TD Garden, in the Leafs’ fifth-to-last regular-season game but best playoff rehearsal, he’ll centre a third line with fellow ex-Blue Noel Acciari and rover Alexander Kerfoot.

O’Reilly’s 3C role on the road is strategic and should serve as foreshadowing for how coach Sheldon Keefe might approach the playoff games in Tampa.

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The line is built for defensive stability when an opposing coach with a deep forward group controls the matchups, and the players’ plan on offence is not to enter the zone with possession but rather dump and chase.

The one-two punch of Kerfoot’s speed and Acciari’s physicality are supposed to retrieve pucks on the forecheck, get them to centre, and let O’Reilly’s playmaking instincts take over.

“You get the puck a lot when you play with him,” Kerfoot said. “He brings a bit of swagger to our team, I think. He has that experience. He’s won a Cup, won a Conn Smythe. He’s been there before. He’s done it.

“Completes our lineup.”

Added Keefe: “He’s got that presence about him—super confident in who he is.”

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The confidence manifests itself in flexibility.

O’Reilly doesn’t blink when a coach asks him to skate in the bottom six or shift to the wing. His ego isn’t so fragile that it’s affected by where his surname falls on the whiteboard. Keefe loves the fluidity his new toy brings to his top nine.

“Wherever I’ve put him, he’s done really well,” Keefe said. “He’s a guy you want to get a lot out of.”

Earlier this week, Keefe teased a potential return of the Ontario Line (Tavares – O’Reilly – Marner) that soared during O’Reilly’s hat-trick night in Buffalo, and he also reminisced fondly on O’Reilly’s brief chemistry with Auston Matthews in Vancouver (“Maybe will look at it again”).

But if you’re searching for the best idea of what a Maple Leafs playoff road lineup will look like, tune in Thursday.

Ilya Samsonov will start in net, and the Marlies will take a seat.

Keefe is treating this game against the runaway Presidents’ Trophy champs like test drive for when it matters.

“It’s nice to have a game like this at this stage in the schedule that’s going to demand the best out of you. They’re gonna challenge you,” said Keefe, impressed by his hosts’ ability to pile up wins in meaningless games.

“Maybe could host the NHL Awards in their building. To me, they should be cleaning up.”

The Bruins, too, are treating their Easter homestand against Toronto and New Jersey as last-chance prep for what facing top-tier competition will feel like.

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Plus, the B’s need to win only three of their final five to set an NHL record with 63 victories.

“They’re the best team in the league right now. They’re the measuring stick for everyone,” Kerfoot said. “You like to play in those hostile environments — and that’s as hostile as it gets.”

Studying his teammates from distance while his digit healed, O’Reilly believed Boston’s consistency should serve as a lesson for the Maple Leafs.

“It’s gonna have a playoff feel to it,” O’Reilly said.

One-Timers: Taylor Hall hasn’t played since Feb. 25 but is back practising in full with the Bruins. Still, coach Jim Montgomery has ruled the winger “doubtful” for Thursday. “I feel rested,” Hall said. “I feel like I have some gas that some guys in the league might not, just having this break.” … Keefe mentioned he has a couple top-six duos in mind for the postseason: Auston Matthews–Michael Bunting and John Tavares–William Nylander, with the option to move another couple forwards around. Expect defensively reliable fixers like O’Reilly and Mitch Marner to shift around, depending on the situation. … Keefe’s Nylander-Tavares-Marner line didn’t score Tuesday against Columbus but did generate 70 per cent expected goals. After reviewing the tape, Keefe was encouraged: “They had the puck the entire game.” … Bruins centre David Krejci is “questionable” to play against the Leafs. … With the Lightning’s loss to the Rangers on Wednesday, the Maple Leafs have a 98.9 per cent chance of securing home ice in Round 1.

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Maple Leafs projected lines Thursday in Boston

Bunting – Matthews – Jarnkrok

Nylander ­– Tavares – Marner

Kerfoot – O’Reilly – Acciari

Aston-Reese – Kämpf – Lafferty

McCabe – Brodie

Giordano – Holl

Rielly – Schenn

Samsonov starts


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