Morgan Rielly is of two distinct minds when it comes to NHL outdoor games.
The Maple Leafs defenceman was ecstatic when his team picked up victories over the Detroit Red Wings in 2014 and 2017.
And then there was Toronto’s defeat to the Washington Capitals in 2018.
“We didn’t play very well,” Rielly recalled. “You leave there and you think the whole thing’s dumb and you should never be playing outside.
“The ones you win, it’s like the best thing ever.”
Rielly will play both in his and the Leafs’ fourth outdoor showcase Sunday when Toronto takes on the Buffalo Sabres in the Heritage Classic at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field.
While the game means the same as any other in the standings, it will also take many players back to their childhood.
“It’s very pure at its finest form,” Toronto forward Jason Spezza said of hockey outside. “My dad would drop me off at the city rinks and I’d play for hours.
“That’s where my game grew a lot. As a kid that unstructured time is amazing.”
The Leafs, however, will be looking for much improved structure Sunday in front of goaltender Petr Mrazek, who gets the start after allowing four goals on 12 shots before getting pulled in favour of rookie Erik Kallgren in Thursday’s 5-4 overtime loss to the Arizona Coyotes.
Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe initially sounded like he might turn to the 25-year-old Swede, who made seven stops in his NHL debut, with No. 1 option Jack Campbell out with a rib injury for at least the next two weeks.
But the task will instead fall to a netminder in desperate need of a solid performance.
“You want to give Petr an opportunity to get back in and respond,” said Keefe, who added it would be unfair to give Kallgren his first start in an unpredictable environment on a big stage. “Petr’s got experience playing outdoor games.
“He hasn’t played nearly to his ability, but he’s won games for us this season. And we need to win a game on Sunday.”
Mrazek actually wiggled off the hook Thursday in terms of taking the loss when the Leafs came back to tie the score before falling in overtime. His save percentage, however, dropped further to an ugly .884 for a team that’s given up four goals or more in nine of its last 11 games, including a 5-1 defeat to Buffalo on March 2 that saw Toronto booed off its ice.
“We don’t feel we’ve been very good consistently enough in front of our goalies,” Leafs captain John Tavares said. “We’ve got to have his back and do everything we can to be solid in front of him.”
Campbell, meanwhile, had an .865 save percentage in his last 13 appearances before being sidelined.
“Spotlight is what it is,” Keefe said of Toronto’s crease conundrum. “Spotlight is deserved at this point, right? The goalies have got to be better, players have got to be better in front of them. Let’s not shy away from the spotlight.
“We’ve just got to take care of what we can.”
On the other side, the rebuilding Sabres should have a spring in their step following Thursday’s emotional 3-1 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights in Jack Eichel’s return to Buffalo.
“We’re going to get their best game,” Sabres head coach Don Granato said of the Leafs. “It’s daunting if you think about it one way, but it’s just what we need.”
The Leafs need, quite frankly, to start playing better if they’re serious about challenging for top spot in the Atlantic Division and avoiding the Florida Panthers or Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs.
Toronto, which has lost to teams well back in the standings like Buffalo, Montreal and Arizona in recent weeks, sits six points back of Florida and one adrift of Tampa.
“It’s a little disruption in the season,” said Spezza, who’s set to return to the lineup after two games as a healthy scratch. “But maybe it’s a good disruption.”
Sunday will mark Buffalo’s third outdoor game, and just the fourth the NHL has staged in the month of March. The league is also probably thankful the Heritage Classic wasn’t scheduled for last weekend when temperatures in parts of southern Ontario hit 18 C. Sunday’s high is expected to be around -1 C with a chance of light snow.
The Leafs have 14 players with at least one outdoor game under their belt, while the Sabres have seven. Sunday will be the NHL’s 35th outdoor contest, 21st to be staged at a football stadium, and eighth held in Canada.
Keefe said apart from the game, he’s looking forward to the team’s family skate following Saturday’s late-afternoon practice because the COVID-19 pandemic has kept so many people connected to the organization apart the last two years.
“Those are the kinds of things that we’ve really missed,” he said.
Buffalo will be the home team, although KeyBank Center is just over 100 kilometres from Tim Hortons Field – the 24,000-seat home of the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats – while Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena is roughly 70 kilometres to the east.
“When you’re in the elements, you don’t know what to expect,” said Spezza, who’s only other outdoor NHL game was mostly indoors at Vancouver’s B.C. Place Stadium in 2014. “We could have snow, rain, sun, whatever … it’s going to be a cool atmosphere.”
Tavares, who played one outdoor game as a member of the New York Islanders, said the event will be special for a number of reasons, including being so close to where he spent countless hours on fellow NHLer and childhood friend Sam Gagner’s backyard rink growing up.
“We’d be out there six, seven hours,” Tavares said. “Even when it would get a little warmer out and he’d have the (refrigeration) pipes on keeping the ice cold. We’d be scraping down the slush and the ice would be half an inch thick, just to trying to make the most of the amount of time we had to play the game and do what we love.
Both teams will be looking to make more Sunday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2022.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press