With three shutouts already this season, Jack Campbell has captured many of the plaudits as the Toronto Maple Leafs have climbed back up the standings after losing five of their first six. However, no goaltender in the NHL is going to turn down a bit of help from his blueline.
It was Morgan Rielly’s turn to deliver on Thursday, as the Leafs defenceman registered the fourth multigoal game of his career to lead Toronto’s 2-1 victory over the New York Rangers, the team’s fifth in a row and first home victory over the Blueshirts since December, 2018.
Campbell was by no means a disinterested bystander, however, with the netminder making 27 saves to register his 50th career victory and NHL-leading 10th win of the season. But Thursday was Rielly’s turn to hit the headlines, earning first-star honours in the process.
Having rediscovered his scoring touch last weekend, scoring the winner in Saturday’s 5-4 victory in Buffalo to register his first goal of the season, Rielly decided to double down here.
The Maple Leafs blueliner opened the scoring with Toronto’s second shot of the game, just 3 minutes 41 seconds after the opening faceoff, taking a pass from Wayne Simmonds on the point and firing a shot past a screened Igor Shesterkin in the Rangers goal.
The rest of the first period was a remarkably tedious affair, however, especially given the high-calibre Eastern Conference matchup that was supposedly being showcased, with the two teams combining for just 12 shots.
But just after the halfway point of the game, with the Leafs on the power play after New York winger Dryden Hunt was sent to the box for tripping, Rielly padded that lead. Taking a pass from Auston Matthews, Rielly was able to deke Jacob Trouba and walk in on Shesterkin, firing the puck between his pads for his third of the season. Matthews picked up his eighth assist on the goal.
Hunt atoned for his transgression 3:30 into the third period, snapping a one-timer past Campbell for his first of the season, ending the Leafs netminder’s shutout streak, which had stretched to the third period of Saturday’s victory.
On paper, the battle of two of the top-five teams in the NHL was the perfect matchup to showcase the strength of the Leafs’ defensive depth. New York entered the game with 44 goals scored, good enough to place the Rangers firmly in the middle of the pack in terms of team offence.
Although Artemi Panarin and reigning Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox have been pulling the strings with 16 points each, Chris Kreider has led the way in front of the opposition net, with his 12 goals placing him joint second in the Rocket Richard Trophy race for top goal scorer.
After sitting out Saturday’s win in Buffalo before returning for Tuesday’s 3-0 home win over Nashville, Rasmus Sandin, the youngest player on the Leafs roster – and the only player born this century – was back in the starting lineup for Toronto.
The 29th overall pick in the 2018 draft has now played in 17 games this season, almost double the nine he played last season, after shuttling between the Leafs and the AHL Marlies, and picking up a foot injury last February.
Still just 21 years old, head coach Sheldon Keefe is mindful of heaping too much expectation on the young blueliner, saying that sitting out some games here and there is done by design, rather than responding to any miscues he might make on the ice.
“You know, we have to continue to be mindful that it is a long season,” he said. “It’s a lot for a young player that hasn’t played a lot in this league and hasn’t played a lot of pro hockey really and has had a history of injuries here in the early going.”
Combined with 24-year-old Travis Dermott and 22-year-old Timothy Liljegren, who was the odd man out Thursday night, Keefe knows he has to find games for the bottom half of his defensive corps, balancing ice time to give them experience with the need to keep the team firing on all cylinders and in the upper echelon of the NHL.
“We’ve developed confidence in the fact that we have seven guys, and we don’t always make the decision for somebody to come out based on anything that’s happening on the ice,” Keefe said. “It’s trying to look at things with a larger scope.”
Having played a career-high 28 games in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 campaign, Sandin is well on course to eclipse that this season. Asked about how he has changed his game in getting into his third NHL season, the Uppsala, Sweden, native pointed toward his consistency, particularly without the puck.
“I think, you know, reading off their players, how to box them out, how to be a little bit hard on the puck, just playing on the right side of the puck more of the time and yeah, just trying to keep it simple,” he said. “So I feel like that’s the biggest step I’ve taken this year.”