Morgan Rielly playfully predicted his first goal of the season was right around the corner.
Turns out the snake-bitten Toronto defenceman was right.
Rielly finally found the back of the net Sunday as part of a second-period outburst as the Maple Leafs defeated the Washington Capitals 5-1 and celebrated the 1,000th NHL regular-season game in the career of captain John Tavares.
“Important to us to play well for Johnny,” Rielly said. “He’s worked extremely hard in his career to get to this point.”
Toronto held the team’s annual Easter Seals charity skate Saturday afternoon, and some of the kids on the ice at the fan-friendly event quizzed Rielly about when he would finally open his 2022-23 account.
“Tomorrow night, obviously,” he recounted telling them.
Asked about that exchange after finally breaking his goose egg, Rielly flashed a wry smile.
“I wouldn’t call it a promise,” he said. “It was more of a hopeful guess.”
WATCH | Maple Leafs pay tribute to Tavares in 1,000th regular-season game:
Maple Leafs pay tribute to Tavares 1,000th game
Michael Bunting, with a goal and an assist, William Nylander, Pierre Engvall and Zach Aston-Reese provided the rest of the offence for Toronto (31-12-8). Ilya Samsonov made 23 saves in his sixth straight start — and seventh consecutive appearance.
Tavares added two assists on a memorable afternoon and early evening that included a pre-game ceremony with his family.
“Something I tried to be aware of,” the 32-year-old said of the hoopla. “But just tried to be where my feet were all day long and stick to the preparation.”
Nicklas Backstrom replied for Washington (26-20-6). Darcy Kuemper allowed four goals on 20 shots before being replaced by Charlie Lindgren. The Capitals backup finished with six stops for a team that allowed four goals in the middle period and has just one regulation victory in its last eight.
“We gave it away,” Backstrom said. “Tough to come back when they score four goals in the second.”
Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said before the game goaltender Matt Murray (ankle) will be out through the NHL all-star break and the club’s subsequent bye week, but added the injury isn’t expected to keep him out long-term.
Murray was scheduled to start Friday’s ugly 6-2 loss to Ottawa only to be made a late scratch that forced Samsonov into action. Joseph Woll was called up from the AHL on an emergency basis Sunday. The Leafs were also minus star centre Auston Matthews for a second straight game with a knee injury that will keep him out until at least mid-February.
“We wanted to respond,” Rielly said of Friday’s performance. “We weren’t very proud of ourselves when we were leaving here after that game against Ottawa.”
Down 1-0 through 20 minutes Sunday, Toronto got even at 1:29 of the second when Bunting slid his 15th past Kuemper on a power play.
Rielly then snapped his first of the campaign — the blue-liner looked skyward in celebration — at exactly seven minutes to make it 2-1.
WATCH | Rielly nets 1st goal of season in 5-1 win over Capitals:
Rielly’s 1st goal of the season lifts the Leafs over Capitals
“Just relief, that’s all,” Rielly, who missed 15 games earlier this season with a knee injury, said of what was going through his mind. “Felt good. Got some good karma [Saturday].”
“So happy for him,” added the colourful Samsonov. “Probably gets some confidence for him.”
Tavares said he’s been impressed with how Rielly navigated his dry spell.
“Don’t know if I’ve ever played with a better professional,” said the captain. “A world-class player and person and leader.”
Rielly seemed taken aback when told of the compliment.
“Probably just in cliche-mode there,” he deadpanned. “Let that one slip.”
Nylander scored his team-leading 28th on a delayed penalty at 10:45 before Engvall scored his 10th at 14:20 for a 4-1 advantage that spelled the end for Kuemper. David Kampf picked up an assist on Toronto’s fourth goal for the 100th point of his career.
Aston-Reese added his fifth with 3:13 left in regulation to round out the scoring.
Washington opened the scoring with 2:43 left in a sleepy first when Backstrom, who played just his ninth game of 2022-23 following hip surgery, fired his first of the campaign through a screen on Samsonov.
The netminder signed with Toronto in free agency after being cut loose by Washington, which drafted him 22nd overall at the 2015 NHL draft, in the summer when he wasn’t tendered a qualifying offer.
“He’s been a pro,” Rielly said of Samsonov. “Our group has a ton of confidence in him. He just goes out there and does his thing and then he provides some pretty good quotes after game.
“It’s going good.”
Tavares expected “quite a few” family and friends in attendance for his milestone moment. “Probably the most I’ve had in my career,” Tavares said following Saturday’s practice. “Great to share it with so many people.”
Selected first overall by the New York Islanders in 2009, the Oakville, Ont., product is the 375th player in NHL history to play 1,000 games. “Tremendous honour,” Tavares said. “Hard to put into words … just a lot of gratitude.”
The Leafs announced before the game Matthews has been put on injured reserve. Toronto also activated T.J. Brodie off IR. The defenceman had missed the last 10 games with a rib problem — his second time on the shelf this season after missing 15 contests because of an oblique injury.
Toronto hosts Boston on Wednesday.
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