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Leafs hope Rielly’s absence will galvanize group

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly - The Canadian Press

The Maple Leafs held an optional skate at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday. 

The Leafs are hoping the absence of top defenceman Morgan Rielly will galvanize their group. 

"It gets the team's attention," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "You can rally around that. In my time here the team has done that quite well."

Offered an in-person hearing by the department of player safety, Rielly could be suspended for six or more games for cross-checking Ridly Greig up high. Rielly confronted the Ottawa Senators forward after Greig took a slap shot into Toronto's empty net to seal a win on Saturday. 

"He sticks up for the respect of our team," said Leafs winger Matthew Knies. "The punishment, everything, is out of our control and out of his control. But it's pretty big for a guy like that, who's been here for so long, to stick up for us and show us that we don't want to be disrespected and that we're a hard-nosed team ... It was a meaningful thing for our team."

Rielly stood up for his teammates and now they want to have his back. It won't be easy to fill the void. Rielly is the only Leafs defenceman to suit up in all 50 games this season. He led Toronto's skaters in ice time 36 times.

"It's going to take an extra effort out of all of us to play better defensively and to create chances and then bury those chances," Knies said. "He's a huge part of our back end and creates a lot for our forwards and stops a lot on D. It's going to be a big hole to fill, but we're going to be up for the challenge. We just really have to bring extra detail and competitiveness."

Rielly has recorded 43 of the 102 points generated by Leafs blueliners this season (42.2 per cent). Per the Elias Sports Bureau, that is the third highest percentage by a defenceman this season behind only New York Islander Noah Dobson (52.4) and Vancouver Canuck Quinn Hughes (44.8). 

"He's a big part of our team, but we can't focus on that," said defenceman Simon Benoit. "We have a game to play tonight and the guys who are going to take his spot have to do a good job. That's it." 

The Leafs went 14-2-1 without Rielly last year, so this is not exactly unfamiliar territory. 

"Last season we had a number of injuries on defence and guys came in and did a good job," Keefe noted. "Everybody around them played better and it ended up being one of our best stretches of the season at a time when it could've gone real bad. The team was kind of trying to find its way. We had injuries on defence as well this season and we were unsure about our depth on defence and then guys come in and do a really good for us. In fact, you look at a case like Benoit and he hasn't looked back from that." 

Benoit cleared waivers and started the season in the minors before being called up in November as an injury replacement and carving out a role in the lineup. 


ContentId(1.2075420): Leafs rally around Rielly: 'He sticks up for the respect of our team'


The Leafs face a stiff test on Tuesday against the St. Louis Blues, who have won seven of eight games. The Blues are averaging 3.63 goals per game during this hot stretch, which is tied for second overall since Jan. 20. 

"Jordan Kyrou is right at the top of the league in terms chances generated off the rush," Keefe highlighted. "He's very skilled, very dangerous. You make a mistake, or you fall asleep just a little bit, and he hurts you. There's a lot of similarities, quite frankly, to Ottawa and the type of game they play and the type of offence they can counter with. Obviously, they're building a ton of confidence and winning lots of games here of late, so it's a dangerous group that way."

Timothy Liljegren will move up and take Rielly's spot alongside T.J. Brodie, who shifts to his natural left side. Liljegren has gone 10 straight games without a point. 

"Obviously, sometimes you just get in a little rut of not playing your best," said fellow Swede William Nylander. "When he's moving and skating out there, shutting down plays and breaking us out and generating offence, that's when he's at the top of his game. We as a team have to help each other play our best hockey. I mean, it's on everybody."

Brodie and Liljegren have played fewer than 30 minutes together at 5-on-5 this season, per They are Toronto's 21st most common pairing. 

Mark Giordano did not skate on Tuesday morning, which was unusual, but Keefe confirmed the 40-year-old is ready to return from a lower-body injury that forced him to the sidelines on Saturday. He will slot in beside William Lagesson who suited up on Saturday for the first time since Dec. 27. 

Jake McCabe and Benoit is the only pairing that remains unchanged. 

"Everybody has another level," Benoit stressed. "We know we're fighting for that playoff spot, and we just have to make sure we fight every night and that's it. There's not much to talk about. Everybody can play in that league in that lineup."

Rielly has played a total of 1,217 minutes and 51 seconds this season, which is nearly 150 minutes more than any other skater on the team. 


ContentId(1.2075419): 'Everybody has another level': Leafs' Benoit-McCabe ready for more


McCabe, who has not played consistently on the power play during his time in Toronto, skated in Rielly's spot on the top unit at Monday's practice. McCabe only has seven power-play points in his 548-game career. 

"Quite honestly, it's specific to how St. Louis penalty kills and how we feel we need to play against them," Keefe revealed. "They create a lot of offence on their penalty kill, so that's one thing to be aware of."

The Blues are tied for second in the NHL with 11 shorthanded goals. 

Liljegren, who led Toronto's defence with six goals last season, will remain as the quarterback on the second unit. 

"McCabe, as a left-hander, is more similar to Rielly, so it came down to the handedness thing for us," said Keefe. "We debated Liljegren or McCabe, but for today's game and for today's opponent we like going with more of a traditional look for us." 

The Leafs experimented with a five-forward alignment last season and Keefe suggested that may return soon. 

"We talked about it," he said. "It's still an option for us ... but with some of the nuances in the zone [by the Blues PK], we think it's better for us to have our forwards play in more natural positions."


Some of the players on Toronto's second power-play unit are showing signs of breaking out of offensive funks. 

Knies snapped a 17 game goalless drought in Ottawa. 

"It was huge," the rookie said of his first goal since Dec. 27. "That kind of boosts my confidence a little bit. Obviously it wasn't going in for me for a while there and it's nice to see one fall and that I could be able to contribute a little bit. I'm trying to keep that momentum going into this game and into the rest of the second half of the season. I just want to find my confidence and mature a little bit as a player."

Max Domi ended a nine-game dry spell in Ottawa and could have had two goals if not for an offside challenge, which took a tally off the board. 

"Our line had an opportunity to get out there and create some energy," said Domi, who has just five goals in 50 games. "We did some good things and Keefer kept putting us out there and rewarding us and we didn't take that lightly. We wanted to work as hard as we could every single time we got on the ice and created energy."

Domi logged 16 minutes and 53 seconds in Ottawa, which was his second highest total in a game this season. He was on the ice for the 6-on-5 shift at the end of the game. 

Before Saturday's game, Keefe noted he was looking to get Domi more minutes, including some shifts in place of Knies on the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. 

"It is something I have been wanting to see for a while," Keefe said. "It is also a way to manage Knies' minutes at different times. Sometimes — because of the Matthews line and the demand that is on them with the matchups and flow of play — there is not as much recovery time. I am trying to reduce that for Knies a little bit and give others some opportunity to go in there."

Domi is averaging just under 13 minutes of ice time per game. In last year's playoffs, he played just under 15 minutes a game with the Dallas Stars

With Knies and Domi getting on the board on Saturday, the Leafs hope Tyler Bertuzzi will be the next snakebitten forward to bump the slump. In an unusual move, Bertuzzi hit the ice ahead of Toronto's optional skate for some 1-on-1 work with a member of the team's development staff. Bertuzzi, who has gone 17 games without a goal, worked on getting shots off quickly after receiving passes in the slot area. 

ContentId(1.2075429): Leafs Ice Chips: Knies, Domi snap slumps; is Bertuzzi next?


Right-shot defenceman Conor Timmins, who usually slots in on the power play when he dresses, will miss Tuesday's game after being diagnosed with mononucleosis. 

"He's going to be out for an indefinite period of time, depending on how that goes in the coming days and weeks," Keefe said. 

Max Lajoie is the only extra defenceman with the Leafs after being called up over the weekend. 


Ilya Samsonov starts against the Blues. 

Dennis Hildeby will dress as the back-up goalie. 

"Martin Jones is day-to-day with an injury that popped up later in the day yesterday," Keefe announced.


Keefe says the team also has one game-time decision. 

Noah Gregor, who usually takes part in the morning skate, was not on the ice. 


Projected Leafs lineup for Tuesday's game


Knies - Matthews - Marner 

Bertuzzi - Tavares - Nylander 

Gregor - Domi - Robertson 

Holmberg - Kampf - Reaves 


Brodie - Liljegren 

Benoit - McCabe 

Giordano - Lagesson 


Samsonov starts