Morgan Rielly putting it all together at right time

Morgan Rielly hasn't had the best season of his. NHL career, in the first year of a eight-year, $60-million contract but the 29-year-old defenceman is starting to combine his offensive contributions with steady play on the blue line just when the Maple Leafs need him.

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OMAR WHITE: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of "In The Mentions." I'm TicTacTOmar. And let me take you down a flashback. Let's think back to September 2022, where we're in the preseason, where defense doesn't matter. And Calle Jarnkrok, on the line with Matthews and Bunting, scored two goals against the Ottawa Senators. So now we rewind to present day, where Calle Jarnkrok gets reunited with Auston Matthews in the top six and scores two goals against the Ottawa Senators.

The Jarnkrok signing overall was another signing that a lot of Leafs fans were confused about. It's kind of similar to the David Kampf situation but different because we didn't know who David Kampf was. And now he's playing. And it's like, OK, yeah, he's actually pretty decent. But Jarnkrok has had a track record of being a pretty solid and consistent goal-- goalscorer amongst teams that he's played for his entire career. He's good for, like, about 15 goals.

Now, personally, the thing that used to frustrate me about Jarnkrok is that I saw how lethal his shot was, just the release and the speed. And I wasn't seeing it enough. But if you had it on a consistent basis, in an area where you can get a lot of offense, like, again, in the top six, who knows what he can-- what he can produce on a consistent basis? And now he's doing that. He has run with Tavares on the second line. And again, now he's getting a shot with Matthews. And it works. And it looks like it is working.

And even though it was one game, I wonder if this is a move that Sheldon Keefe runs with for a long time because, again, I like the idea, I like the awareness that Jarnkrok has. He knows where to go. He knows the focus is going to be on Auston Matthews. And because of that, he opens him up-- he opens himself up for chances and for shots. Matthews literally does the work in the corners, works the puck around, finds him open in the slot, goal.

And that is why I think a Matthews-Jarnkrok, like a long stretch of it, maybe you throw Nylander up there, I don't know, maybe if, you know, Sheldon Keefe continues with this whole, like, each of the three lines get their own elite scorer thing. But I think Jarnkrok and Matthews can do a lot of dangerous stuff together. And I think it should be a line that lasts for a while.


So there are some times or moments during the season where I literally forgot how little Morgan Rielly was scoring. Like, he was on three goals for the longest time. And now he's not, because the goals are back, scoring in back-to-back games. But the thing I think is most important is that the offense matched and also exceeded the defense. What I'm saying is that, like, in that game where he scored, he was actually really good defensively.

He was clogging up lanes. He was taking away shot attempts. He was being physical-- physical when it warranted but, at the same time, still rushing the puck up the ice, taking shots, making plays, and such. And that's the Morgan Rielly that the Leafs need. That's the Morgan Rielly that I want-- I want the Leafs to have. And I think that's why so many Leafs fans have been so frustrated and, you know, just quick to anger when it comes to Rielly because we know what to expect from him.

He's not a full-on defensive defenseman. We know that. He's an offensive defenseman who can make a first pass, you know, contribute to-- contribute to the overall team's raw production but, at the same time, still be relatively steady defensively. And we haven't seen that much from him this season. So my hope for the rest of the season is that this Morgan Rielly has been the Morgan Rielly that has kind of found himself a little bit, that knows the level that he needs to play consistently and will continue to do that in the playoffs when it matters the most.

You want to hear something funny for the wrong reasons? Matt Murray is the first Leafs goaltender to give up at least four goals in six games since Ed Belfour in 2006. Funny? Not funny. But here's the thing-- and there are a lot of Leafs fans who are obviously not thrilled with that stat, and myself included. I've been very guilty of being critical of Matt Murray this season.

I think, you know, initially, I wasn't too fond of the trade, even though it made sense, you know, like when it came down to getting rid of Peter Mrázek. And, you know, there have been some moments where he's been awesome. But there have also been some moments where he hasn't been that good. But even though, yes, he's letting these four goals in these games, I don't think it's fair to look at the numbers and just say, well, he's bad, he's letting all these goals.

In fact, the game against Ottawa, it could have been a lot worse. Yeah-- yeah, he allowed-- you know, he allowed four goals. He also faced like over 50 shots and kept things going when Ottawa was really pushing in overtime, when they had their chances, in the shootout, when there literally could be so many moments where it just-- it's just over and the Leafs lose. Matt Murray kept them in it.

Now, games like this and instances like this, now the comparisons kind of come up. Is it Murray or is it Samsonov? And I think at this moment, Samsonov has done enough to show that he is deserving of getting the start in those Leafs must-win games. At the same time, I do think that Matt Murray is still trying to, I guess, find his rhythm a little bit. It also doesn't help that the team in front of him isn't, like, the most secure when he's in net.

So if you have the team being secure, and then you have Matt Murray playing, you know, good-Matt-Murray hockey, and you combine that, then maybe you can get to that point where Matt Murray is like his former self. I really think that's what Sheldon Keefe is trying to get to. I really think Sheldon Keefe is trying to, like, activate that, like, potential, activate that, like, pass excellence that Matt Murray had when he won those two cups in Pittsburgh.

Because why not? If he did it then, and if he did it for Pittsburgh, then if he ends up doing it here, then there goes all the negativity, all the bad things that we've been focusing on. So between the two, Samsonov I think has been better. But I think Matt Murray is really going to take this final stretch of the season as an opportunity to prove that he can be just as good or maybe even better, just as long as, you know, the goals against go down.

OK, this is going to be different. This isn't going to be another old "officiating has been horrible" thing, for multiple reasons. One, because I think it's a little tired. And two, because I'm kind of getting a little annoyed with everyone saying, oh, it's only the fans who complain about officiating. And then we watch multiple games around the league, and it's like, no, it's not just us. So this is my concern, and this is my fear, right? Because again, this is it. This is the big year, 10-year anniversary of the first collapse against Boston in 2013.

My fear is that it is forces outside of the Leafs' control that ends up costing them the series, right? The other losses, the other eliminations, it's been on the team, right? We know that the top six can't score, the defense is bad, the goalie can't make a save. You can pinpoint things on specifically the team.

And my fear is that in a year where everything works out well-- the team is playing well, they're getting good defense, they're getting-- they're getting saves-- my fear is that the refs' tendency to manage the game as opposed to call what is meant to be called cost the Leafs. That's my fear.

Prime example, I think even this week we've seen, in a span of, like, 15 seconds, where an infraction is done against the Leafs, not called, and then seconds later, something happens, the Leafs do something, and then it's called. Or you even have cases where Calle Jarnkrok is called for goalie interference even though he was pushed into the goalie.

So that's why I get so, like, fired up, and angry, and frustrated about officiating. Because yes, they should do better, and yes, they should try to be aware of the things that are taking place, and yes, they should call penalties, penalties and not just manage the game. But my fear is when that-- is if that game management goes against the Leafs.

And would it surprise you? No, because things usually go against the Leafs. But I don't want that to be the thing that makes or breaks their livelihood in the playoffs. I really don't. And to be honest, as the games go on, and as more and more things are taking place, and especially in the playoffs, where just the whistles are thrown away for the most part, it wouldn't surprise me. But I hope I'm wrong.

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