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Rielly, Marner make difference for Maple Leafs in win over Rangers

Sportsnet logo Sportsnet 12/23/2018 Luke Fox
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(Provided by CBC)

TORONTO – Another win, another ankle injury, another big night for Mitchell Marner.

The Maple Leafs capped off a perfect 3-0 week against inferior Eastern Conference opposition Saturday in dominating the run of play and dropping the New York Rangers 5-3 on the strength of its stars.

But as was the case in Tuesday’s defeat of New Jersey, the victory came at the expense of a reliable winger’s foot.

a group of people wearing costumes © Provided by Rogers Media Inc Tyler Ennis joins Zach Hyman on the sidelines, and the impending Christmas break is coming at an ideal time.

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Starting on time has been a focal point for the group, and the Leafs accomplished that feat when Patrick Marleau beat out an icing race, then deftly tipped home a Morgan Rielly point shot in the first period.

In registering his 30th (!) pre-holiday assist, Rielly increased his lead atop the defencemen’s scoring race and now has nine points over his past four games.

“His maturation process, I’ve been able to see it first-hand, and it’s been quite the journey for him. Each and every year, he adds a little bit to the arsenal to make him the elite defenceman that he is,” Nazem Kadri said.

“His skating ability is what sticks out for me. He’s able to hop into the play so easily, so effortlessly, and that release with his wrist shot is impeccable.”

Toronto, as a whole, looked impeccable, rolling around the New York zone and generating Grade-A chances and second opportunities, yet unlike Tuesday in New Jersey or Thursday versus Florida, the Leafs couldn’t flood the net and run away early.

“They’re definitely moving the puck well. High-speed hockey,” Henrik Lundqvist said Friday. “Especially if you’re looking at the forwards, they probably have the most skilled group in the league, maybe.”

The Rangers kept lingering around long past the point you’d think appropriate, like the family on your block that waits until May 2-4 to haul down the Christmas lights.

They killed off an Adam McQuaid double-minor penalty and the prolonged 6-on-5 that preceded it — a golden opportunity for Toronto’s skilled forwards to wrest the night away — and backup goaltender Alexander Georgiev, superb Tuesday in a victory over resurgent Anaheim, fended a barrage of shots from Auston Matthews and John Tavares.

Neal Pionk was the beneficiary of a classic “good road period” as he whistled an old-fashioned slapper high and clean far-side on Frederik Andersen with five minutes remaining in the second frame. Late in the second, fourth-liner Ryan Strome whiffed on an open net that could’ve given the visitors a stunning lead.

Heading into the third period knotted at one, the pair of Original Six squads — one rebuilding, one finally not anymore — gave play-by-play deity Bob Cole, calling a now-rare Saturday night national game in Toronto, a close one to soundtrack.

For fans of a certain age, simply that alone felt like Christmas coming early. Oh, baby.

Mitch Marner broke the tie early in the third period when he slammed home a rebound after a key John Tavares face-off win created offensive-zone possession time.

Then Rielly pounced into the zone to snipe his 12th.

“He thinks he’s in Moose Jaw again now,” coach Mike Babcock said. “He goes out there, he’s good, he’s having fun.”

Just when the game appeared to be on ice, centre Kevin Hayes—the Rangers most valuable trade rental—tucked a Filip Chytil rebound and narrowed the gap.

Then the Tavares-to-Marner struck once more, this time Marner dekeing Georgiev backhand.

The winger, known for his pass-first disposition, has now scored six goals in his past four games, giving him 12 on the season and breaking the typecast.

Hayes scored once more late, presumably only to gift us with some of that Bob Cole drama.

And Marleau missed an open net, presumably so Marner could find it for his second of the night.

The Maple Leafs still have one more bit of business to take care of before the holiday break, as another severe underdog, the Detroit Red Wings, fly to town Sunday.

“We like playing here, we’re comfortable, we think we’ve got a good team. Now we’ve got to play right though, and we understand that,” Babcock said.

“Christmas — I hope everyone got their mom a nice gift, it’s a real important thing you do.”

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