Morgan Rielly takes a moment to think of his next words, and grins widely before continuing.
“You don’t want to call it a storybook, but you might as well” he says to the throng of reporters huddled around him in the dressing room of BMO Field following the Maple Leafs 5-4 overtime win at the Centennial Classic.
And while the Leafs defensemen was hesitant to put a literary label on the proceedings that had just finished, those who witnessed the team’s most important victory in quite some time had a thought along a similar plane.
A new chapter, perhaps.While several of the young players on the team have won at various levels of the sport, very few have been in big game situations at the NHL level.
That all changed Sunday afternoon in Toronto.
Looking like they were cruising to a victory, the young, inexperienced team wobbled, allowing the savvy Red Wings to come roaring back into the game, eventually tying it 4-4 with just 1.1 second left on the clock.
Facing adversity, the team had to dig deep. And dig deep they did. Regrouping quickly, with the steady and cool Matthews leading the way, they were able to secure both points in what turned out to be a huge victory.
They sit just three points out of a playoff spot.
And while those points are certainly welcome, the benefits from yesterday afternoon will likely go far beyond the standings.
It was an experience.
It was a chance for the young kids to cut their teeth in some pressure, big moment situations. It was a chance for the coaches to put those kids out in said pressure situations in order to see how they would navigate the learning curve.
And it’s a victory that could very well end up being remembered as a turning point. The moment, perhaps, where the Maple Leafs franchise learned what it means to win in big situations, and just how far down they’ll have to dig.
Babcock spoke about the value of facing such hardships after the game, stating “I’m giving them (the Matthews line) the opportunity. They got two goals in the third. I’m giving them a chance to shut out the game. They gotta learn.”
And while the long-term benefits will certainly sort themselves out, the Maple Leafs coaching staff will be looking to see what type of short-term gain can be had from such a momentum building win.
As we turn the calendar to 2017, the games are only going to get tougher. Babcock, though certainly not happy with blowing the lead, spoke about how the playoff hockey he hopes this team will soon endure will mirror these types of situations.
The Leafs have a big January, playing playoff teams such as Washington, Montreal, Philadelphia, and two tussles each with Ottawa and the New York Rangers.
Suffice it to say, this month will go a long way in determining just how realistic the Maple Leafs playoff chances are this season. And while a playoff birth isn’t the be-all-end-all for this club right now, the potential experience gained from an appearance of any length will be just another step in the process toward learning how to win at the elite level in the NHL.
As it stands now, with a big victory in their pocket, and the New Year upon us, the Leafs enter 2017 with plenty of momentum to build on what has already been a largely successful season.