TORONTO â€” Another victory for the surging Maple Leafs carried with it a potentially large cost.
Toronto won for the 10th time in the last 13 games on Tuesday night, but also lost No. 1 defenceman Morgan Rielly to a lower body injury â€” the severity of which is unknown.
The Leafs rallied from a 2-0 first period deficit without the 22-year-old, scoring three unanswered goals â€” including another from Auston Matthews â€” over a 10-minute stretch in the second period, eventually outlasting the Buffalo Sabres 4-3. It’s the first time all season that the club has won when trailing after the opening frame (1-8-1).
“A two-goal lead you’re definitely not out of the game,” defenceman Jake Gardiner said. “We knew that and responded well.”
Gardiner played a career-high 29:24 with Rielly sidelined, veteran Matt Hunwick adding a season-high 27:32.
Rielly, who leads the Leafs in ice-time this season, was injured less than seven minutes into the first frame. He was carrying the puck out from behind his own goal when his right leg got locked with the right leg of Sabres’ winger William Carrier. His leg pulled in an awkward direction as it hit the ice.
He struggled to get to the bench and then hobbled to the team’s dressing room at Air Canada Centre, returning for one shift before exiting for good.
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said the team would know more on Rielly’s status on Wednesday.
“He’s a huge factor,” Babcock said of Rielly. “We’ve had lots of success this year with no injuries.”
Indeed, Toronto entered the night with 56 man-games lost to injury, but less than a handful to any key player â€” Tyler Bozak sitting out three games, most notably, at one point in December.
“But injuries wear you down and then what happens when you get injuries is you play fewer guys more and then it usually leads to more (injuries),” said Babcock. “So we’ve got to manage this well. I don’t know if (Rielly’s) out a week or 10 days or a month. I don’t have a clue.”
Rielly’s absence, for any length of time, would leave a major hole in the lineup.
Playing alongside rookie Nikita Zaitsev, he’s tasked with the most difficult minutes for Babcock, matched nightly against opposing top lines while playing on both the power play and penalty kill.
“He’s a key part of our team,” said James van Riemsdyk, who scored his 16th goal of the year in the win while keeping an eight-game point streak (12 points) alive.
“You can see how minutes he plays and all the situations he plays in. Hopefully we get some good news on him.”
Buffalo grabbed the lead shortly after Rielly went out with Kyle Okposo’s 13th this season, the Buffalo winger taking advantage of a misplay by Frederik Andersen around the net. The Leafs No. 1 was under pressure from an on-rushing Carrier when he cleared the puck right to Okposo who quickly snapped a shot for the 1-0 lead.
Evander Kane upped the Buffalo lead to two with 33 seconds left in the first.
Babcock wasn’t happy with either goal on Andersen, “But I liked that he was resilient, stuck with it and found a way to win the game.”
The 27-year-old stopped 17-of-18 shots over the final 40 minutes for his 19th win this season.
It took the Leafs half a period to not only vanquish the deficit, but get a lead.
Leo Komarov started the scoring 32 seconds into the second when a Nazem Kadri shot from the sideboards banged off the Finnish winger charging hard to the Buffalo goal. Matt Martin tied it about eight minutes later when he threw a harmless shot from the corner at Robin Lehner, the puck just sneaking through as the Sabres goalie hopelessly tried to pull it back.
Then Matthews gave the Leafs the lead, whipping a shot just under the crossbar for his team-leading 22nd goal this season. It was the 16th goal in 23 games since Nov. 23 for the 19-year-old, matching Montreal Canadiens’ captain Max Pacioretty for the league lead.
Matthews trails only Sidney Crosby and Jeff Carter in goals this season.
Lehner’s night was over at that point, a reality that seemed to frustrate the Sabres No. 1. Approaching the bench as backup Anders Nilsson stepped in, Lehner looked in the direction of head coach Dan Bylsma and appeared to say something. He then slammed the door to the bench and threw his mask down in disgust.
“He should be upset with getting pulled and that’s part of Robin’s game, that emotion,” Bylsma said. “I have no problem with that.”
Van Riemsdyk scored with a power play to up the Toronto lead to two, Carrier pulling the Sabres close again, but not close enough, with a goal in the final moments.
The Leafs have beaten Buffalo in each of the first two meetings this season with three more tilts still on deck.
Currently holding the final playoff spot in the Atlantic division â€” though only a point back of the Boston Bruins with five games in hand â€” Toronto has been scorching hot over the past month. They’ve captured 21 of a possible 26 points in that 13-game span, outscoring the opposition 48-33 while boasting a power play that’s connected on 35.7 per cent of its chances.
The penalty kill, too, has hummed at 86 per cent.
A date with the New York Rangers awaits on Thursday night.
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press