With the prolonged absence of Shea Weber, the demands are high on the remaining defencemen of Montreal’s brigade. Some will be asked to play a lot more minutes, but more importantly, to do it against high-quality competition.
It is a hard ask for many blue-liners who don’t necessarily have the tools to handle such a challenge, but it is also an opportunity to shine for those who haven’t been given a significant role in their careers.
In a first game against the powerhouse that the Maple Leafs have become, more than one player stepped up to deliver a strong performance. Mikey Reilly was one of them. After a solid start to the game, he was used repetitively by Claude Julien; facing the top competition the blue and white had to offer, with many shifts against the top two lines centred by Auston Matthews and John Tavares.
Reilly was positionally sound, aggressive in the neutral zone, and, with his handling ability, helped the Habs escape the offensive pressure of the Leafs rapidly in his end. He takes risks as a puck-mover, but it might be just what the doctor ordered for a Montreal team that struggled heavily with getting out of their own end last season.
The changes implemented by Julien aim to have the forwards exit the zone with speed, this means that the defencemen are required to do their best to get the puck to them quickly, but also in a manner that allows them to accelerate with it past the blue line and not face back pressure trying to collect it off the side boards.
Beating the forecheck is the first step to making controlled zone exits happen. It requires a certain level of confidence, and Reilly, who seems to want the puck as much as any defenceman in the league, showed that he could handle pressure and find his teammates in open areas on Wednesday. There was also more than one occasion against the Leafs where Reilly joined the rush as another pass option, or carried the puck out himself.
A two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year winner, Reilly was once a highly coveted NCAA free agent for the skills and solid play he showed in the opener. He will represent a big asset for the Habs’ attack if he can continue to display the same level of play. This was a great start for the 25-year-old, and a top spot on Montreal’s blue line is his to take.
But it’s just game one of the season. Consistency has been the issue for him in the past, and he will have to continue to prove that he can continue to a be solid presence on the back end, starting tonight against Crosby, Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Video analysis of Reilly’s play versus the Leafs.
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