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The Maple Leafs practised at Ford Performance Centre on Wednesday.

Morgan Rielly is looking more and more like his old self.

Rielly led all National Hockey League defencemen with 20 goals last season and finished fifth in Norris Trophy voting. But this season he struggled to produce at the same level while playing through a nagging injury. And then on Jan. 12 he broke his foot during a game in Florida, missing eight weeks of action and only returning for the final game before the pandemic pause.

If Tuesday night was any indication, the 26-year-old looks ready to reclaim his top form.

"He really did skate well," coach Sheldon Keefe observed after the 4-2 exhibition win over Montreal. "Mo is at his best when he is flying up the rink and joining the rush and playing with authority. Talking to him, he is feeling as good as he's felt from a health standpoint and he looked like it with how he skated."

Rielly finished the only tune-up game before the qualifying round series with a shorthanded goal, two assists and four shots on net while logging 19 minutes of ice time. 

"If you were looking at what you would want to come out of this game for someone like Mo, it's the confidence to be up and skating and pushing the pace with the way that he moves and joins the rush," Keefe said. "He got rewarded with a goal and that's great to see."

For his part, Rielly, who finished the regular season with 27 points in 47 games, didn't want to get carried away when asked to assess his progress.

"A break like that, I mean, players had a chance to do what they needed to for their body, I don't think I was any different," he said. “It's nice to be out there after a long break, for sure, I think we all feel that."


While Rielly's return helps bolster the blue-line, Keefe has stressed that Toronto's forwards have to do a better job of helping keep the puck out of the net. And the coach liked the progress he saw against the Canadiens.

"We moved our feet really well," Keefe said. "Defensively, I thought that was a big thing for us. We want to make sure that we are really working and skating and having urgency coming back to our end. I thought that was a really good sign for our team. There were a number of times we came back. I thought we gave up the neutral zone at times a little too easily, but I liked how we worked. We ended up breaking up some plays in and around our net because of the work we had coming back. That was really good."

"We're doing well," said winger Zach Hyman. "I don't think we gave up too much last game. I think every day, every practice we get a little bit better. [It] was really important for us to jump into game-like situations where there was randomness and things like that and I thought we adapted well and it's a good for us moving forward."

But no one is getting too carried away after one exhibition game against the lowest seed in the Eastern Conference field.

"It's definitely a work in progress," said defenceman Justin Holl. "We did a lot of good things last night, executed a lot of what Sheldon emphasized through training camp, but I also think one game isn't going to be the [sign] that we made it so I think there's still a lot of stuff we can continue to clean up and continue to emphasize."


Rielly isn't the only Vancouver native who appears poised to turn things around after a forgettable regular season.

Alex Kerfoot scored twice on Tuesday and appears much more comfortable after a shaky start to his Leafs tenure. Kerfoot bounced between centre and wing much of the year, but now with Ilya Mikheyev returning from injury, Keefe has been able to slot the 25-year-old in as the third-line centre alongside wingers Kasperi Kapanen and Nick Robertson.

"It was as good as we have seen Kerfoot play and that's a really healthy sign for our team," Keefe raved after Tuesday’s game. "If we can get Kappy and Kerf playing like they were [Tuesday], it makes us a tough team to handle. That's really good for us.”

With other teams focused on shutting down Toronto's top two forward lines, production from the bottom of the lineup could swing a tight series.

One of Kerfoot's goals on Tuesday came while the Leafs were short-handed. Kerfoot has never played a consistent PK role during his NHL career, but while watching video during the pandemic pause the coaching staff liked the potential he showed in spot duty.

"[Assistant coach] Dave Hakstol really took the lead with that," Keefe noted. "We had used him sparingly and just looking a lot closer at it and thought there were a lot of positives there that gave us reason to want to give him a chance early in camp to expand his role. It helps us having a centre who can take face-offs."

Toronto's top forward penalty killers in the regular season – Mitch Marner, Hyman, Mikheyev, Kapanen and Pierre Engvall – are all wingers. But Kerfoot won't simply be darting off the ice after winning face-offs.

"How he skates and pressures the puck and his reads of the play have been really good so we've seen lots of reasons to continue to go with that," Keefe noted. "And if he can continue to pair with Kappy like he did yesterday and they play together at five-on-five and can go together on the kill, it really helps the rhythm of our bench."

The Leafs' penalty kill was a big reason why they lost the last two series against the Bruins, allowing 14 goals in the 14 games. So, it's important that the unit builds some confidence heading into this best-of-five series against the Jackets. 

"Our PK was solid last night," said Hyman. "Kerf and Kappy did a great job. Kerf on that draw was great and he scored a shorthanded goal and they didn't give up much. Both quick and fast on pucks and they were really strong. It was good for us to have them going."


Kerfoot suggested that poor ice conditions at Scotiabank Arena helped the Leafs kill off Montreal's six power plays on Tuesday.

"The ice was sloppy," he said. "It was hard to make plays."

The Leafs-Habs game was the second of the day in the building and the temperature was in the high 20s leading up to puck drop.

"Under the circumstances they were pretty good," Frederik Andersen said of the ice conditions. "There was a game before so that's something that will be interesting to see how it plays out. The ice crew has a p​retty tough task ahead of them with a lot of games in a short period of time."


Travis Dermott shifted to the right side to skate a few shifts alongside Rielly in the third period on Tuesday. The lefty also skated on his off-side during some of the Phase 2 workouts and for one of the scrimmages in the Phase 3 training camp.

What does Keefe think of the Rielly-Dermott pairing?

"They've done fine," he said. "I don’t know that the sample is large enough yet to make any real final determinations, but what we've seen throughout this with the number of reps we were able to get Derms playing on the right side and practising on the right side, he's comfortable to play there any time we want to make a change. It gives us increased flexibility and gives him further opportunity to move up the line-up."

Rielly and Dermott only played together for 25 minutes and 34 seconds this season, per Natural StatTrick, making them the least used pair on the Leafs.


Robertson remained on the third line at practice on Wednesday. He’s now skated in a regular spot in the top-12 in every team session since July 18.

What are we to read into that? 

"What you can read into it is we continue to believe in him and he hasn't had any lapses here that have made us second guess giving him that opportunity," said Keefe. "Despite the fact we don't have any more games here, we haven't made any final decisions. We still have some days here to consider different things ... If you can read anything into it, it's just we continue to believe in him and believe there's reason to give him reps in that spot."

The 18-year-old spoke to the media on Wednesday, his second session with reporters since camp opened up.

"My confidence level is obviously getting higher and higher each day," Robertson said. "Getting to know the players off the ice definitely helps on the ice and just learning a lot from all these guys and asking a lot of questions helps me."

Robertson played just over 10 minutes against the Habs, firing one shot on net and picking up a secondary assist.

"It proves to myself that I can keep up with them," Robertson said of his NHL pre-season debut. "Obviously, I have a lot to learn, but I think I definitely made an impact."

Kristen Shilton has more on Robertson’s push to crack Toronto's Game 1 lineup here.


Lines at Wednesday’s Leafs practice via team media relations:

Nylander - Matthews - Hyman
Mikheyev - Tavares - Marner
Robertson - Kerfoot - Kapanen
Clifford - Gauthier - Spezza
Muzzin - Holl
Rielly - Ceci
Dermott - Barrie
Sandin - Marincin


Lines at Wednesday’s Jackets practice via team media relations:



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