(Tampa) Ryan O’Reilly may not win the Selke Trophy this year, but he has the chance to accomplish so much more this spring. Like helping an entire town get rid of a 19-year-old loot.
O’Reilly certainly did his bit on Saturday. His performance worthy of the player who won all the trophies in 2019 allowed the Toronto Maple Leafs to win 4-3 in overtime on Saturday in Tampa in Game 3 of the first round series. The Leafs lead the series 2-1.
Where to start ? By his equalizing goal, scored with one minute left in the third period? By his faceoff won in the last minute of the first overtime, won so decisively that it became a pass to Morgan Rielly, who immediately scored with a wrist shot to end the argument? By his blocked shot at the very end of the third period?
We could add his involvement in the scrum following the worrying fall of Brayden Point, reminding us that he was not only ready to go to war with the Torontonians, but also to drag them there with him. To this effect, one wonders if the involvement of Auston Matthews also stems from the contagious enthusiasm of number 90.
Regardless, O’Reilly has been a profitable addition for the Leafs so far. He had started the season, amassing 11 points in 13 games when he arrived in his hometown. He’s been doing this since the start of the playoffs. With a goal and two assists on Saturday, the unprotected-eyed man has five points in three games in this series, while posting his near-customary 62% faceoff success rate.
His performance also served as a reminder that Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas has had a lucky hand with some of his late-season trades so far. O’Reilly gave him a solid 22 minutes on Saturday. Jake McCabe, a newcomer to the blue line, played 28.
Let’s add Noel Acciari, author of the first goal, but also one of the only ones who seemed to want to check if Victor Hedman is indeed healthy, by hitting him. That’s without forgetting Luke Schenn, a depth addition, whose leadership during the third-period scuffles was highlighted by former player Kevin Bieksa on Sportsnet.
Unfortunately for Dubas, those additions will be judged on the simple basis of his team’s ability to win a first-round playoff since 2004. The Leafs are now halfway there. If they miss their mission again, Dubas’s work in this winter of 2023 will be a mere footnote to his balance sheet. This is the reality in a market that has been waiting for spring hits for too long.
Those who predicted victory for the Maple Leafs in this series had many reasons to do so. From the Torontonians’ fabulous center line to the Lightning’s dodgy end to the season, there were plenty of reasons to favor the Leafs. Hedman’s medical condition could have been added, but his performance on Saturday, when he returns, will allay concerns.
But in net, there was, theoretically, no photo between Andrei Vasilevskiy and Ilya Samsonov.
This series hasn’t exactly been a goalkeeping duel so far, but against all odds, Samsonov is superior to his compatriot these days. Recall the mythical invincibility of Vasilevskiy during the last three years in the playoffs: 48 wins, 23 losses, average of 2.09, efficiency of .928. Not for nothing did he lead his club to the final three years in a row.
This spring, number 88 is showing an efficiency of .853 after three starts. Goals like Acciari’s at the start of the match, or O’Reilly’s equalizer, granted on the kind of sequence where he excels at being massive in his semi-circle, Vasilevskiy does not grant any when he is at the top of his game.
By thus opening the door to the Leafs, Vasilevskiy also allowed his rival to rebuild his confidence. Samsonov had a difficult first period and even in the second period, he struggled to locate the pucks and distributed generous returns. But the more the game progressed, the more Samsonov found his ease and will now approach the next game on a streak of two consecutive victories. Under the circumstances, his efficiency of .878 in this series does not say it all.
The current generation of the Leafs has been built around incredibly talented forwards. For Samsonov to stand up to the great Vasilevskiy would be an incredible outcome.