Although the Maple Leafs kicked off the second half of their 2016-17 regular-season schedule with a come-from-behind, 4-3 win over Buffalo Tuesday at Air Canada Centre, they lost top-pairing defenceman Morgan Rielly early in the first period to a lower-body injury that knocked him out of the remainder of the game. But while any team would be reeling from having a key player sidelined, the good news for Toronto was twofold as they gathered for a quick practice Wednesday afternoon: firstly, Rielly's injury has sidelined him not for the long term - he's classified as "day-to-day" and was walking around the dressing room without any assistance - and secondly, Rielly's teammates and fellow blueliners stepped up in a major way in the victory.
Even if he knew he wouldn't be in the lineup for the Leafs' home game against the New York Rangers Thursday, Rielly was relieved to know he wasn't looking at missing a large portion of the season.
"Whenever you go down awkwardly and you don't know what really happened, you get a bit concerned," Rielly told Leafs TV. "But we have a great staff here in Toronto and the doctors took good care of it and I think we have a pretty good idea of what's going on. Right now it's day-to-day, so that's good news. I'm happy that I'm walking around and everything, and feeling better than I was yesterday, and that's the most important thing."
After Rielly left the ice for good Tuesday night, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock turned to veterans Jake Gardiner and Matt Hunwick for more minutes, and both delivered strong efforts that included season-highs in minutes: Gardiner logged a team-best 29:24, and Hunwick played for 27:32. Babcock will do some rejigging of his defence pairings for the Rangers game - Gardiner will replace Rielly on the top pairing with rookie Nikita Zaitsev, while Frank Corrado will slot into Gardiner's normal spot beside Connor Carrick - but the fact there was no discernible drop-off in play was a testament in particular to the growth in Gardiner's game.
"I think he's played well," Babcock said. "He's like every player, he has some dips, but he's played well. He really moves the puck, really skates. We're on him lots about his defensive detail, just because we think he can get to another level as a player yet."
"Jake's having a great year all-around," added Rielly. "He's been able to put up big points for us and he's been playing bigger minutes, and I think this is an opportunity for him to play with Nikita, probably play against (the opposition's) top line, and he's very capable of that. He's a great skater, he sees the game very well, and I thought he was outstanding last night. He played 29 minutes, and I mean that's tough to do, but I think he handled it really well, and he's ready for the challenge and I think he's going to do a good job for us."
The Leafs overcame a 2-0 deficit against Buffalo to pull out their third consecutive win, and they'll be in tough to extend the streak against a Rangers squad they beat 4-2 at Madison Square Garden Jan. 13. The Blueshirts also have dropped three straight games, which should make them especially desperate to get back on the winning side of the ledger.
"They're a really good team," Hunwick said. "Great offense, a lot of depth, strong goaltending. Our speed game, our cycle game can be really good. I think in New York it was, and we'll need a lot more of that tomorrow night."
Despite the loss of the speed Rielly brings, his injury doesn't upset Toronto's apple cart so much that it will provide an excuse for a loss. Indeed, the Leafs are now fairly set with their forward lines and defense pairings at this point in the year, and a slight shift in personnel here or there still leaves a group that has a solid idea of what their tendencies and preferences are in any given situation.
"I think the continuity of the (defence) pairs have been pretty good," Hunwick said. "Morgan and (Zaitsev) have played really well together, Jake's game has been really strong, and then Roman (Polak) and I have been steady. We've just kind of found the pairs and the matchups that we like, and the team has been playing better in general. All those things kind of come together at the same time, and it's been good."
"It's going to be no different - it's not like we're changing anything now that Morgan's out," added Babcock. "It's just that someone else will get more of an opportunity. (Tyler) Bozak was out for a few games. That's just the way it is in the league. We've been real fortunate this year - knock on wood - that we haven't had a lot (of injuries). Hopefully that continues."