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Morgan Rielly shines for Maple Leafs in well-executed victory over Rangers

TORONTO – Fitting that a blueliner would be crowned the first star of a defensive gem.

Yes, in a barn buzzing with Auston Matthews and Artemi Panarin, Mitch Marner and Mika Zibanejad, William Nylander and Chris Kreider, the man who stole the show was a defenceman.

In a battle of two improving groups decked out in iconic sweaters, Morgan Rielly scored not once but twice in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ well-executed 2-1 victory over the New York Rangers Thursday.

The win halted the Blueshirts’ streak at four, increased Toronto’s streak to five, and improved the Maple Leafs’ record at Scotiabank Arena to a sparkling 9-2-1.

No NHL club has more salutes on home ice this season.

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“They’re playing really good hockey, and they’re a very dynamic, high-powered team,” Kreider acknowledged. “One of the best teams in the league.”

A short checklist of ingredients that comprise a good hockey team:

Superb goaltending? Check.

Centre depth? Check.

A power play that sends shivers? Check.

A puck-moving, workhorse defenceman? Check.

A serious commitment to play without the puck? Check. (Believe it.)

Over a smartly played 60 minutes by both sides, there was sense of mutual respect for the other’s wildest weapons. Odd-man rushes and brutal mistakes were difficult to come by, as two of the NHL’s top-five teams skated through organized game plans, trying to push the other to the outside as best they could.

“We’ve simplified a lot,” Rangers defenceman Jacob Trouba said. “Not as many high-risk plays. Not as much up and down the ice. It’s more establishing an offensive-zone presence in a shift and trying to build off that. When we get a D-zone shift, we play strong D zone. There’s less transition and more zone play.”

Trouba’s analysis could apply to the enemy, too.

As they did against Nashville here Tuesday, the Leafs backchecked with purpose and waited for their openings to strike.

Rielly was critical to that end on this eve, quarterbacking a perfect power-play, chipping in on a perfect penalty kill, skating a game-high 23:54, and scoring all of the winners’ goals.

The longest-contracted Leaf pumped Toronto on the board before the contest was four minutes old.

Benefitting from a diligent cycle shift by the Leafs’ fourth line, Rielly floated a high wrister from the point through a Michael Bunting screen that beat Igor Shesterkin.

Reilly’s second was prettier and, ultimately, more important.

With a second-period power-play winding down, Rielly drove to the Rangers’ slot, flustered Trouba with a silky toe-drag and snapped the puck five-hole.

“He contributes so much to us offensively to help keep our players moving from breakout to neutral zone to offensive zone. He’s so important to our team,” coach Sheldon Keefe raved.

“But he’s doing a good job for us defensively. Obviously, he’s been a huge part of our power play, which has been rolling here for us.

“His game has been very well rounded here now for quite some time. I think the defensive responsibilities that we’ve given him, he’s taken that all on. His gap control and defending at the blueline, we’ve been happy with that. If you look back at last season’s playoff series, he was really, really good in that regard because of how he defended.”

Dryden Hunt narrowed the gap in the third period when he slammed a Ryan Strome rebound past Jack Campbell for his first as a Ranger.

But Campbell and a committed, detailed defensive effort from the Leafs hung on.

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Facing one of the more dynamic threats in the East, Toronto had 20 takeaways, registered 12 blocked shots, swiped 80 per cent(!) of the draws, and was perfect on special teams.

“We’re far more connected in terms of the relationship between our forwards and defencemen and how they’re playing together. In general, our players are just comfortable on the defensive side of the puck, not forcing things on the offensive side,” Keefe explained.

“A lot of guys early in the season are trying to jump start their season offensively and looking to get going. And that tends to change your mindset a little bit as a team. It took us a little bit to get to this place, but we’re in a good spot here now throughout our lineup about how we need to play to be comfortable in these situations.”

The Leafs have won 10 of their past 11, but their ability to lockdown W’s in stressful circumstances (now 8-0 when leading after two periods) indicates maturity.

They look — dare we say it? — consistent.

“Once you kind of get it in your mind that you’re gonna play a certain way, [that] you’re just not going to give up chances against, the rest follows,” Rielly said.

“I think the work ethic has always been there. The real desire to win has always been there. But it’s just kind of a mental hurdle and a mindset that I think we’re starting to establish — and that’s a great sign.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Kreider gave a very measured answer when considering why he has exploded to his 12-goals-in-16-games start. The power forward figures if you generate enough chances in good spots, a certain amount are bound to go in.

“It’s the law of averages,” Kreider says, matter-of-factly.

Yes, his shooting percentage (24.0) is abnormally high, but 79 per cent of Kreider’s goals come from between the slot and the goal line. Leaguewide, that percentage is 63. Pays to drive the net, kids.

• Nice to see Simmonds get on the scoresheet after watching Saturday’s win from the Buffalo pressbox.

“First time for me in 14 years I’ve ever been healthy-scratched during the regular season,” Simmonds reflected. “It was a little bit of a tough pill to swallow, but we got a lot of depth here, right?”

Keefe explained Simmonds’ sitting on the back-to-back as an exercise in load management. The 33-year-old has shown well since.

“My role’s been reduced a little bit this year, so that’s up to the coaching staff,” Simmonds said. “If it’s up to me, I’m playing every game.”

• Jason Spezza believes what has vaulted Shesterkin among the world’s best goalies is his ability to read the play: “You can tell he thinks the game well, because he’s beating passes to posts and stuff like that.”

• Rasmus Sandin’s response to being asked yet another Auston Matthews question at the morning skate was priceless.

“Auston, Auston, Auston,” the Swede said with a smile and a headshake.

• 2015 MVP Josh Donaldson was in the house. Hockey crowd erupted with a loud ovation for the former Blue Jay.

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