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'Goal of the year' just latest example of progress for Maple Leafs' Rielly

02/08/2015 01:18 EST | Updated 04/10/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - It just kind of happened. That's how Morgan Rielly describes one of the most breathtaking goals of the NHL season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman stole the puck from Edmonton's Nail Yakupov in his own zone, made Derek Roy miss along the boards beyond the blue-line, evaded Jeff Petry going to the net and toe-dragged Andrew Ference out of his skates in front before going high glove side on goaltender Viktor Fasth.

It was unassisted, unadulterated hockey skill at its finest and what goaltender James Reimer called "the goal of the year."

"In my head I didn't really plan it like that, but that's just the way it played out," Rielly said. "I got some ice and I had a chance to make a play and thankfully I was able to do it."

Amid a season that's turning to dust, Rielly's rush goal was the latest piece of evidence that the 20-year-old is blossoming into a franchise cornerstone on the Leafs' blue-line. The 2012 first-round pick has some work to do defensively, but his development has progressed even further under interim coach Peter Horachek.

Horachek has leaned heavily on Rielly and played him 20-plus minutes in 12 of 14 games since taking over. Rielly is glad to be playing with more freedom.

"I think he has some trust in me that if I have a chance to make a play, I'll probably make it and if I don't I'll be able to recover," Rielly said. "That's just helped me a lot, it just gives me some more confidence."

Rielly isn't a polished, all-around defenceman, but his smooth skating lets him get out of trouble. Horachek said the Vancouver native has done some great things recently for the Leafs, even during their recent losing skid.

"He's a dynamic player," Horachek said. "His escapability, his skating. He can do some things in the (defensive) zone and gets out of danger sometimes. He's still a young man and it's really starting to come on."

Rielly insists he hasn't changed his game, and his unchained play with the reins relaxed late last season under Randy Carlyle showed that. This is who Rielly is, and some extra NHL experience has helped him feel more comfortable.

The goal against the Oilers showed it. Rielly was excited to flash that kind of skill but has come to learn he can't just unleash himself every time he's on the ice.

"You have to earn it. You can't just be doing that," Rielly said. "If it's not going to work, you've got to be a two-way guy. You have to (have) a whole lot of responsibility about it. That's what I'm trying to do and hopefully I can just keep trying to do it."

That's just the progression of a young defenceman. Horachek expects Rielly to falter along the way but learn from it.

"Sometimes you're going to make mistakes and you've got to learn: 'OK that's not an area where I want to make that mistake. This is an area where I don't want to make that mistake again,'" Horachek said. "I think that he's got some bigger and better things, is going to keep getting better and better all along."

Note — The Leafs sent goaltender Antoine Bibeau and defenceman Petter Granberg back to the Marlies of the AHL on Sunday after each player was recalled on an emergency basis before facing the Oilers.

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