Leafs' Rielly takes on bigger role in Ekblad's absence

Team North America blueliner Morgan Rielly has impressed coach Todd McLellan through two games at the World Cup of Hockey.

Defenceman stepped up Monday to fill in for the injured Panther

North American defenceman Morgan Rielly, left, plays the puck away from Finland in their opening game at the World Cup of Hockey. (Andre Ringuette/World Cup of Hockey/Getty Images)

Todd McLellan has been impressed with Morgan Rielly's ability to play multiple roles and log big minutes at the World Cup of Hockey.

That's why, with star defenceman Aaron Ekblad likely lost to injury, McLellan is prepared to lean on the 22-year-old Maple Leaf blueliner when North America meets Sweden in a critical preliminary round game Wednesday.

"He's arguably been one of our best, he has the ability to play both sides of the puck," McLellan said. "Offensively he's been tremendous, he's defended well and he's taken huge minutes on.

"I had a high appreciation personally for the way he played the game [before the tournament], but it's gone way up. Now that you are around him day in and day out, he's a tremendous player."

North America was without Ekblad in Monday's 4-3 loss to Russia and he is unlikely to dress against the Swedes. Jacob Trouba replaced Ekblad in the starting six but it was Rielly who took over Ekblad's minutes, logging a game-high 23:07 of ice time, including over seven combined minutes on both sides of special teams.

Ekblad out for tournament

McLellan wouldn't confirm a report after Tuesday's 20-minute team skate that Ekblad has a concussion, saying only that he is listed as day-to-day with an upper-body injury, but the 20-year-old blue liner didn't skate with the team. Team general manager Peter Chiarelli released a statement late Tuesday announcing that Ekblad would return to Florida where the Panthers' medical team will address his upper body injury.

"Would we love to have Aaron Ekblad? Absolutely. Might we have him? Maybe. If we don't, we feel good about the group we have.

"If Aaron's not ready to play he's not going to play."

Florida Panthers general manager Tom Rowe said Ekblad planned to stay with the World Cup team in Toronto, but was unlikely to play. 

"We're not going to risk it, we have too much at stake," Rowe said. "We may talk about it again, but I don't think that's going to happen."

Multiple reports claim that Ekblad will be returning to Florida for evaluation in a matter of days. 

Rielly says him and his teammates talked about what they need to do as a unit against Sweden in what will be a must-win game for North America, and that he's up for any role McLellan decides.

"When we lose a guy like Ek [Ekblad] we have to rise to the challenge. We got to talk about how we going to do things," Rielly said.

"As [defencemen] we have to be ready to take on that role and step up."

North America gave up four second-period goals in its loss to Russia, but McLellan wasn't phased on Tuesday and wouldn't blame it on the loss of Ekblad. He highlighted that all four came in a span of 5:14 and believes his team was the better of the two despite the final score.

"Yesterday when we looked at the game tape with Aaron out, there was a six to eight minute lapse where we didn't perform well as a team, not necessarily positionally. It was units of five that didn't perform well."

Rielly showing leadership

Rielly scored once and had a game-high seven shots on net against Russia, but he wasn't thrilled with his overall performance. He blamed himself for Russia's third goal and refused to say that his own goal to make it 4-2 before the second period finished was enough to make up for it.

McLellan disagreed with the young defenceman.

"That's a team goal," he said.

"But that's a sign of leadership if he's announcing responsibility for it. That's maturity. That's him being mature and leading."

While Rielly's role with the team became bigger as the game against Russia moved into the third period, other players became noticeably absent.

Forwards Dylan Larkin didn't play a shift in the third while Jonathan Drouin played three shifts and served a bench minor for too many men.

With the tournament potentially on the line with a loss, McLellan says he will shorten the bench against Sweden if it has to be done again.

"We won't be afraid to narrow it right down and run the guys right out of gas, whoever's playing," he said.

Sore thumb won't keep Murray down

Goaltender Matt Murray says he's ready to go if McLellan wants him against Sweden.

Murray left Monday night's 4-3 loss to Russia after surrendering four goals on seven second-period shots. But it was the thumb on his right hand that raised slight concern after he jammed it and said post-game that it was bothersome.

The 22-year-old goaltender practised Tuesday afternoon at Ricoh Coliseum and showed no signs of concern. He took part in full drills, practised his puck-playing abilities and was able to squeeze a water bottle with the injured thumb on his blocker hand.

"It's good, sore, but nothing major," said the Pittsburgh Penguins netminder. "Nothing to worry about."

While Murray says he is ready to go, McLellan wouldn't confirm who would start for North America Wednesday against the Swedes in a must-win game.

With files from CBC Sports


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