TORONTO – So will it be fireworks or dynamite?
Something is bound to be detonated in the aftermath of another playoff series against the Lightning that the Maple Leafs absolutely must find a way to win.
At least a few good omens seem to be coming up in Toronto’s favour, starting with the healthy return of Ryan O’Reilly to the lineup. The organization felt fortunate with the nature of the break to their key deadline addition’s left index finger last month and were extremely encouraged by what they saw after dropping O’Reilly directly into a tightly-contested game against the NHL’s best team nearly five weeks later.
He showed no apparent rust during Thursday’s 2-1 overtime loss to the Boston Bruins, getting double-shifted a couple times while controlling his minutes in a largely third line vs. third line matchup against Charlie Coyle.
The biggest benefit you get from O’Reilly is that he’s not combustible.
He can withstand intense pressure from both an opponent and the moment and continue to make plays that keep his team on the correct side of the puck, which is an invaluable skillset when the margins are slimmest.
There’s no vagueness about how dearly a Leafs front office looking to get over the hump coveted the fire-proof hallmarks of his game. They parted with a first-round pick plus other assets to pry the 32-year-old centre out of St. Louis with no promise of keeping him beyond this season.
He’s here for his “playoff-like habits,” as Sheldon Keefe calls them, and that’s why the head coach was so enthused about getting O’Reilly back with the start of the playoffs just 10 days away.
He comes right in and he just plays the game with such intelligence,” Keefe told reporters in Boston. “Put the puck to good spots. He was good on the battle.”
The Leafs coach seems inclined to accentuate the defensive utility of the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner by slotting him in as his third-line centre. He’s never previously gone into a playoff series with that kind of quality at 3C – deploying Alexander Kerfoot in the role against Columbus in 2020, using a combination of Pierre Engvall and Riley Nash in 2021 against Montreal and going with David Kämpf last spring against Tampa.
Kämpf remains a key defensive piece for Toronto, albeit now as the linchpin of a fourth line with Zach Aston-Reese and Sam Lafferty that Keefe has elected to use as a tone-setter at the start of games and periods.
That trio appears set in stone with the Tampa series on the horizon.
O’Reilly largely skated between Kerfoot and Noel Acciari against the Bruins on a line the coach is comfortable sending out against anyone, although he did see a couple top-six shifts at even strength with John Tavares and Mitch Marner as well. Remember that those were his linemates on Feb. 21 in Buffalo when he scored a hat trick just days after being acquired from St. Louis.
WHAT. A. PERFORMANCE. 🌟— NHL (@NHL) February 22, 2023
Ryan O'Reilly scores his first three goals with the @MapleLeafs to earn his first @Enterprise hat trick of the season! pic.twitter.com/OfKXbDGpGh
Even with a whiff of experimentation still in the air, simply reintroducing No. 90 to the heat of competition was a positive. There were times he felt like he was fighting the puck a touch at TD Garden, but his surgically-repaired finger wasn’t too much of an impediment to keep him out of the faceoff dot. And he managed to log 17 useful minutes in his first game action in 33 days.
“Most fun I’ve had in a long time,” said O’Reilly. “Felt great to be back.”
The Leafs clinched home-ice advantage for their impending series against the Lightning by securing a point and are now left with the singular goal of getting through the final four regular-season games as healthy as possible.
They certainly seem to be on the better end of that spectrum than a Tampa team that kept forwards Anthony Cirelli and Brandon Hagel out of Thursday’s visit to Long Island with lower-body injuries before seeing Tanner Jeannot require assistance to get off the ice after falling awkwardly on his right leg.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper told reporters afterwards that he had a “high” level of concern about the status of the rough-and-tumble winger, who was Tampa’s big trade deadline acquisition from Nashville in February.
O’Reilly has been limited to just nine games since joining the Leafs because of his broken finger, but the notorious rink rat still managed to make a quick impression on his new team. He was a fixture around the dressing room during his rehabilitation period, with Keefe noting that he spent three hours in his gear one day last week.
And when he finally got the go-ahead to rejoin the lineup in Boston, the coach said no one spoke up more on the bench than the 987-game veteran and former Stanley Cup-winning captain.
“It’s just a great presence for us,” said Keefe. “It makes a big difference having him in there.”
The hope is that O’Reilly can help change the equation in Toronto. At least he’s back in a position to make something good happen.