Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly calls his shot on John Tavares’ big night

John Tavares recorded a pair of helpers in his 1000th career game, and Ilya Samsonov turned aside 23 shots against his former team as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Washington Capitals 5-1.

TORONTO – Morgan Rielly flashed a wry smile to reporters Saturday when discussing his rather humbling interactions with the excited kids invited to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ annual Easter Seals skate.

“I got some interesting questions. Mostly about when I’m going to score,” Rielly revealed to the scrum. “Harder-hitting questions than you guys ask sometimes.”

So… what did you tell the children? When are you going to score?

“Tomorrow night, obviously,” Rielly deadpanned.

[brightcove videoID=6319471309112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

While the Leafs’ No. 1 defenceman might not be prolific this season, he is certainly prophetic.

“Yes,” Rielly admits, the big doughnut to the immediate right of his games-played column had been weighing on his mind.

Even if, as coach Sheldon Keefe and several teammates note, you wouldn’t know it from his attitude, interactions, and body language around club headquarters.

But how could it not be stressing the onetime 20-goal man out?

Rielly’s 35-game drought coincided neatly with the start of his juicy new, eight-year, $60-million contract. He had racked up more assists (21) than any other goal-less NHLer, and yet his first 68 shots on net were all turned away.

Well, 69 did the trick.

On Sunday, true to prediction, Rielly pounced on a puck whacked into the slot from a forechecking Michael Bunting, snapping the thing clean and high past Washington Capitals netminder Darcy Kuemper for what would stand as the winner.

[brightcove videoID=6319469582112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

“Just relief,” Rielly exclaimed of the feeling as he extended both arms higher than a crossbar and looked to the heavens before getting swallowed by all the eager hockey hugs.

“The guys were excited on the bench,” Keefe said. “Mo’s an important player for our team. So for him that have a bit of a relief there, I think, it’s felt throughout the team.”

Ilya Samsonov perked up when asked about Rielly: “Oooh, I’m so happy for him. I waiting for this one. You know, in the practice, he’s shooting so hard.

“This goal will get confidence for him.”

Rielly’s relief was but one cause for celebration Sunday, which marked the 1,000th game of hometown captain John Tavares’s tremendous career.

[brightcove videoID=6319468464112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Toronto allowed the evening’s first goal, a Nicklas Backstrom power-play marker in the first period, only to come stomping back with four unanswered in a dominant second frame and chase Kuemper from the paint midway through its efficient 5-1 beatdown of Washington.

The Caps — champions five years ago and still clinging to the postseason race — looked sluggish and overwhelmed by comparison.

“They’re high octane,” said Washington coach Peter Laviolette, motioning down the hall.

One of the Leafs’ smoothest engines is Tavares, who is humming once again at an 80-point pace and chipped in with a pair of assists on his big night.

The captain estimated he had more friends and family members in attendance to support him Sunday than at any other game in his storied career.

He thanked the Maple Leafs and Islanders for believing in him; his wife, Aryne and their two young sons, Jace and Axton (who were also gifted size-appropriate silver sticks) for their sacrifices; and his parents, Joe and Barbara, for doing everything possible so he could chase his passion.

“It’s a tremendous honour. Just hard to put into words. Not gonna lie. Just have a lot of gratitude,” Tavares said. “You love to play this game as a kid. You dream about playing in the NHL. To think that you get to do it for a thousandth time is pretty remarkable. You don’t take that for granted.”

[brightcove videoID=6319472882112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Just as Rielly won’t take his next goal for granted.

“Felt good. Got some good karma yesterday from Easter Seals. I was out there with those guys a lot and smiling, so I think that’s what it was,” Rielly figured.

Plus, he promised the children.

“I wouldn’t call it a promise,” Rielly downplayed.

“It was more of a hopeful guess.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• What about Bunting? What sorts of questions did the Easter Seals youngsters have for him?

“I had a lot of kids asking me to chirp them.”

• If — hypothetically speaking! — the Maple Leafs were to buyout the final season of Matt Murray’s contract, he’d only cost them $687,500 against the cap in 2023-24.

He’d also cost a $2 million against the cap in 2024-25. However, the ceiling is expected to make a significant jump by then.

• Pretty cool to see Nicklas Backstrom score his first goal since his drastic off-season hip-resurfacing surgery.

“This was kind of like the last resort. Unproven technology, I want to say, for sports,” Backstrom told reporters during a lengthy rehabilitation that had some doubting whether he’d play again.

“I had to do it because I had no other choice. It’s either that or I’ll skate on one leg again.”

Ryan Kesler underwent the same procedure on his hips and never played again.

• T.J. Brodie had not missed a single game as a Maple Leaf until this season, when he’s been sidelined twice.

Making his return after three weeks on the shelf, Brodie said that “an elbow or a butt end” damaged his rib and that the mental aspect of missing time with these injuries has been more difficult that the physical part.

• Outside of John Carlson, the Capitals don’t have a single NHL defenceman signed beyond this July.

Minute-munchers Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen, Trevor van Riemsdyk, and Erik Gustafsson are all impending UFAs.

Will be interesting to see whom GM Brian McLellan can afford to keep.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.