Sure, it was the life of Rielly.
Morgan Rielly scored one goal and assisted on another as the Maple Leafs, bedecked in the green of the St. Pats and serenaded by fiddlers, shamrocked the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday night.
Zach Aston-Reese, of all people, led the way with two goals the Leafs ended a two-game slide with a 5-2 win. The goals were the sixth and seventh of the season for Aston-Reese, whose last two-goal game was in 2019.
Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews also scored for Toronto. Marner has scored in back-to-back St. Patrick Day games, when the Leafs break out the colours worn by the franchise from 1919 until 1927.
Rielly has goals in back-to-back games for the first time this season and seems to be coming to life at the right time.
“Sometimes when you score, you feel like things are opening up for you. That can only be a good sign of things to come for (Rielly),” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said before the game.
“Morgan’s very consistent in his approach every day. The only thing that would weigh on him is the puck not going in. The team relies on him for it. He’s very honest about his game. Morgan really wants to win, to help our team. He’s extremely committed to being at his best.”
Marner, meanwhile, has registered a point in 58 games this season and been held without a point only 10 times. Only Connor McDavid (seven) has had few outings without a point.
More to the point, perhaps, the Leafs put some breathing room between themselves and the Tampa Bay Lightning while rising to the occasion in a rare game against an opponent higher than them in the standings. The Lightning had crept to within a point of the Leafs heading into Friday night, adding a feeling of urgency to the weekend games. They also play Saturday in Ottawa.
“It’s that time of year,” Keefe said. “You keep notice of what’s happening around you. But you don’t lose focus to what’s most important for us, which is to feel good about our team, have our team healthy and ready to play in the playoffs. And that’s really it.
“Obviously, you want to clinch your playoff spot and get that taken care of … Right now, we have the edge and you want to maintain that through good play and good habits.”
It might have the luck of the Irish shining down on the Leafs, but they had a 3-1 lead after the first period thanks in part to one of the luckiest goals Matthews has scored. John Tavares’s shot caromed off a Carolina defenceman, hit Matthews in the knee and bounced in to the Carolina net.
That re-established a two-goal lead established by Aston-Reese and Marner before Carolina’s Brady Skjei snuck one by Ilya Samsonov to halt, at least temporarily, the Leafs’ momentum.
On the downside, the Leafs lost forward Noel Acciari, who took a Jesse Puljujarvi forearm to the head in a blue-line collision. Acciari lay on the ice as the play continued. He left the game and did not return. The team said it was for precautionary reasons.
Both teams traded goals in the second. Martin Necas cashed in when the Leafs were caught running around in their own zone. But Aston-Reese got his second of the game after Sam Lafferty grabbed a loose puck at the blue line and set him up for a tap-in.
Luke Schenn made his return to Scotiabank Arena as a member of the Leafs for the first time since April 5, 2012. Schenn was in the starting lineup and his name was greeted enthusiastically by the crowd.
“The fans have always been unbelievable to me,” he said. “It comes with the territory of playing here and being in this market. You’re not going to feel the love all the time. But I can say in all honesty, in my four years here, the fans were unbelievable to me and fair to me.”
Samsonov got the start against Carolina, meaning Matt Murray is likely to play Saturday in Ottawa against his former team. Samsonov started his second game in a row.
“He’s played very well at home,” Keefe said. “As much as we want to work through both goalies and keep both goalies involved, I really think it’s important at times to look to give guys multiple games just because I think that’s part of getting in a rhythm.”
It’s also likely the Leafs will return to a more traditional 12-forward, six-defencemen lineup against the Senators, with Wayne Simmonds expected to join the lineup for the first time since Feb. 1.
The Marlies, also dressed in green, lost 5-0 to Carolina’s top farm team, the Charlotte Checkers, in an afternoon game at the Scotiabank Arena.
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