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Morgan Rielly has room to grow with Maple Leafs

Defenseman praised by coach Mike Babcock, but determined to improve for Game 2 against Capitals on Saturday

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

WASHINGTON -- Imagine working most of your life toward a chance to appear in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and then, finally, you get that chance. The reality is, it isn't a moment to savor as much as it is a blur. Before you know it, it's over.

For Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly, it took time to decompress and deconstruct the Maple Leafs' 3-2 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Thursday. Coach Mike Babcock said he thought Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round might have been Rielly's best game of the season. Rielly wasn't so sure.

"I appreciate the compliment," Rielly said with a laugh Friday. "But you want to keep getting better."

Rielly will have a chance to do that in Game 2 of the best-of-7 series here on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports, CSN-DC).


[RELATED: Complete Maple Leafs vs. Capitals series coverage]


It speaks to the youth and talent of the Maple Leafs that Rielly is rarely mentioned as one of their young up-and-coming players anymore. They have a bountiful crop of rookies led by center Auston Matthews, 19, the No. 1 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft; forward Mitchell Marner, 19, the No. 4 pick of the 2015 draft; and forward William Nylander, 20, the No. 8 pick of the 2014 draft.

Rielly is sort of an old young talent. He's a four-year NHL veteran. But he's still only 23, and he was the No. 5 pick of the 2012 draft. After 312 regular-season games, he experienced his first playoff game just like Matthews, Marner and Nylander did.

Babcock said Rielly was "really solid" in 24:24 of ice time in Game 1, third most among the Maple Leafs, keeping tight gaps, boxing out, winning battles, breaking out well. Rielly iced down his bruises, talked to his teammates, took the bus back to the hotel, ate a late meal and replayed the game with his mental DVR.

"I mean, there's a lot going through your head between the bus ride and the meal," Rielly said. "You're thinking about the game. You're thinking about mostly what you did wrong and where you can improve."

Rielly saw little things in his head most of us don't see live or on television. The Capitals are a good faceoff team. Forward Alex Ovechkin, the great goal-scorer, likes to line up in what is called an offset, behind the puck. Rielly said the Maple Leafs have to do a better job as a five-man unit of recognizing it and adjusting their plan to get the puck out of the zone.

After his late meal, Rielly watched the Anaheim Ducks' 3-2 victory over the Calgary Flames in Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round. He started to think about what the Maple Leafs did right. Washington likes to use the stretch pass to spring its speedy forwards, and Toronto defended it well. At their best, the Maple Leafs broke out of their zone quickly, keeping the Capitals from playing offense.

"You just piece it together a little bit," Rielly said.

Eventually, the adrenaline subsided, and Rielly was able to get to sleep. He didn't say what time. Just know it was late.

Remember that Rielly grew up as a skilled defensemen, and the closest thing he has had to a veteran mentor in four seasons in Toronto was Dion Phaneuf, whom the Maple Leafs traded to the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 9, 2016. Babcock said Rielly had to learn a lot on his own about how to play without the puck.

"He's kind of in some ways like Matthews and Marner and Nylander and those guys," Babcock said. "When you're so good like they are early, you don't have to play without the puck. They have the puck all the time."

Rielly still has a lot of room to grow. The good thing is, this is a great growth opportunity, and he isn't just happy to be here, isn't satisfied to get kudos from his coach. He's his own critic.

"For a lot of us, it's our first opportunity to play in the playoffs," Rielly said. "Come this time of year, lots of guys get their reputation to be guys who can rise to the challenge and play in those big games. You want to be a guy like that. You look up to guys like that. Given the opportunity that we have, all of us want to come out and be ready to play and be guys that can play this time of year. I think that's important.

"You want your next game to be the best one of the year, and then you want your next game after that to be better. I think that's the approach you have to have, especially this time of year."

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