TORONTO – Morgan Rielly is a sports fan himself, so the Maple Leafs defenceman knew exactly what many in the crowd of 19,561 at the Air Canada Centre were experiencing when the Maple Leafs clinched a playoff spot on Saturday night.
Rielly’s point of reference was attending Blue Jays games through the club’s playoff runs in each of the past two seasons.
Rielly said he was in attendance for “most of” the Jays’ home playoff games and was at the Rogers Centre for Jose Bautista’s post-homer bat flip against the Texas Rangers in Game 5 of the American League Division Series in 2015.
“You listen to the crowd after the Jays make a big play or hit that home run, it gives you goose bumps,” Rielly said. “To be on the ice (Saturday night) when we got that reception, those cheers from our fans, it is a very good feeling and just makes you want it more and more for years to come.”
The ACC was positively loopy from the time Kasperi Kapanen tied the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins to the final buzzer, just after Auston Matthews scored into an empty net. In between, of course, was Connor Brown’s winner, coming on a re-direction of a Jake Gardiner shot from the point.
For Rielly, that span represented a snapshot of what life can be like for the Leafs on a regular basis well into the future.
“I think you get that feeling,” Rielly said. “You get the joy and the pride and all the feelings of a game like (Saturday) night and it’s pretty contagious.
“You want to keep that going. We talked at length about being at the Blue Jays games when they were winning games and what that feeling was like for them and for us to see that, and then last night the way the crowd was, it’s a cool feeling.
“It’s not a feeling I’ve ever had before playing with this team. A lot of pride, just enjoying the moment. When you watch the highlights, the camera pans the crowd a lot, you can see the joy in the fans’ faces, you can tell the reaction and that alone gives you joy and just knowing that we are able to continue playing and fans are able to keep coming, hopefully we can get some more wins.”
What was coach Mike Babcock’s reaction to raucous atmosphere in the final minutes?
“I didn’t hear one thing,” Babcock said. “I just knew I had to get the right people on the ice next and we had to finish the game. I was more focused on that. My wife told me it was spectacular.”
Matt Hunwick’s great pass to Kapanen for the latter’s first NHL goal on Saturday wasn’t the first time the veteran Leafs defenceman has helped a freshman score his milestone goal.
Something similar happened on Oct. 27, 2014, when Hunwick, then with the New York Rangers, set up Anthony Duclair against the Minnesota Wild.
“That was a long stretch pass (to Duclair), but (the pass to Kapanen) was maybe the best in terms of in-tight, no-look … certainly at the point in the season and point in the game it was the biggest (assist of Hunwick’s career),” Hunwick said. “Really happy for (Kapanen). He was relieved to get it over with. Huge goal. Great to see him score and great to see his reaction as well.”
MORE ON MATTHEWS
With his goal against the Penguins, Matthews became the fourth player in NHL history to score 40 in a season before his 20th birthday.
Others who did it previously were Dale Hawerchuk, Sylvain Turgeon and Mario Lemieux. Matthews won’t turn 20 until Sept. 17. And Matthews joined Mats Sundin as the only Leafs to score at least 40 goals in the past 22 seasons. Sundin had 41 in 1996-97 and also had 41 in 2001-02.