Morgan Rielly would head back to Vancouver early in his Toronto Maple Leafs’ career and watch on television as players younger than him battled for the Stanley Cup.
This is a lot more fun.
The defenceman helped lead a nastier, angrier version of the Leafs in Monday’s 4-2 victory over the Bruins in Game 3 of their first-round series to cut Boston’s lead in half.
“You want to play playoff hockey,” said Rielly, now 24. “When you’re a young guy, 20, 21 years old and you go home early and watch players playing in the playoffs that are younger than you, it’s not a good feeling.”
What also wasn’t a good feeling was Rielly and his teammates getting their doors blown off in consecutive 5-1 and 7-3 losses in Boston to open the Eastern Conference quarterfinal.
Known more for his skating and passing, Rielly showed a rarely-seen edge in Game 3 to lead Toronto’s response.
Sure, the Leafs got big goals and key saves, but their ability to physically match the Bruins in the corners, in front of the net, and after the whistle was equally striking. No other player showed more willingness than Rielly.
“It was a group thing,” he said in trying to downplay his role. “When you look at the score of the games, we all were not happy. You take that personally.”
“But when 20 guys take it personally, it can make a difference.”
Asked about Rielly’s performance ahead of Thursday’s equally crucial Game 4, Toronto head coach Mike Babcock had a theory that drew laughter from reporters at Wednesday’s practice.
“He was outstanding,” Babcock said before deadpanning: “His mom came to town, gave him a little bit of a tightening.”
Apart from the pushback the Leafs showed in the physical department, Toronto got key contributions from star centre Auston Matthews and netminder Frederik Andersen.
Matthews scored the winner — his first goal of the series — while Andersen came up with some incredible stops, including an eye-popping stick save with two minutes to go, after allowing three goals on five shots in the first period of Game 2.
“You need those plays,” said Rielly, who had two assists Monday. “There’s guys on teams that their job is to put the puck in the net. You can go through dry spells or periods where you’re not getting bounces, but in a big game when you get one of your best players to score a big goal, that’s crucial. (Then) your goalie makes a huge stop.
“It’s all of equal importance, but the timing of those things can be big. When you look back at Game 3, we had both those things happen.”
Add the Bruins’ top line of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, which had 20 points through the first six periods of the series, getting held off the scoresheet and it’s a straightforward recipe for success.
“They’ve shown over a period of time that they have lots of good nights,” Babcock said. “Our job is to make sure they don’t.
“They all concern you. They’re all real good players. They’re all different, they’re all real effective and they’ve been real good against us. The less touches we give them, the less time and space, the better off we’re going to be.”
For the Bruins to respond at Air Canada Centre, they will need to match the speed the Leafs showed in Game 3 after two sluggish Toronto showings at TD Garden.
“We are gonna make some changes … make adjustments,” Boston defenceman Zdeno Chara said. “But we just need to be better.”
The Leafs, meanwhile, don’t want to change a thing.
“We knew we had to be better than we were in the first two games,” Rielly said. “We came into that game with more motivation, we came in more competitive.”
That’s what they did, with Rielly leading the way.
Notes: Leafs forward Leo Komarov, who sat out Game 3 with a lower-body injury, didn’t practise and won’t play Thursday. Toronto rookie winger Andreas Johnsson was back on the ice after leaving Monday’s game with a lower-body injury. Leafs centre Nazem Kadri is eligible to return from suspension for Game 5, which goes Saturday in Boston at 8 p.m. ET.