TAMPA, Fla. — Ryan O’Reilly stepped in front of the cameras and microphones to face the music following a disastrous playoff opener.
The Maple Leafs forward and his teammates had just been thumped 7-3 on home ice by the battle-tested Tampa Bay Lightning in a humbling curtain-raiser to their first-round series.
Toronto looked nothing like the group that cruised to a 111-point finish in the regular season on a forgettable, worrying night.
Sloppy, unsure and nervous were just some of the less-colourful adjectives being used to describe the performance outside the locker room’s four walls.
O’Reilly calmly answered each question with a self-assurance that comes from reaching the NHL summit.
There was no panic, no worry, no concern.
“We were just dipping our toes in,” he said. “That happens.”
A Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe Trophy winner in an organization populated by very few players with any tangible playoff success on their resumes, O’Reilly was acquired from the St. Louis Blues prior to the trade deadline by a franchise desperate to flip its post-season narrative on the ice.
The 32-year-old might be just as valuable off it.
The Leafs rebounded from that embarrassing Game 1 performance with a 7-2 victory two nights later before picking up a 4-3 overtime victory Saturday against a Tampa roster that won the Cup in 2020 and 2021 before once again making last year’s final.
O’Reilly’s fingerprints were all over that Game 3 performance.
Despite his line that largely consisted of Noel Acciari and rookie Matthew Knies not having a great night, the Clinton, Ont., native stepped up in the biggest moments.
He helped set up Acciari’s 1-0 goal, tied things late in the third, blocked a shot right before the end of regulation and won the faceoff that led to Morgan Rielly’s clincher in the extra session.
O’Reilly hasn’t seen it all, but he’s seen more than most.
“Lots of it’s personality and lots of it’s experience,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “The team that we’re trying to beat here has a team full of those guys.
“Once you’ve won, you’ve got that extra swagger and confidence … you don’t get rattled or fazed.”
O’Reilly, who won the Cup with St. Louis in 2019, including a Game 7 road victory in the final over the Boston Bruins, has consistently shown an ability to raise his own level in the toughest moments.
He’s averaged 0.71 points per game in the regular season throughout his career, but that number bumps up to 0.91 in the playoffs following Saturday’s one-goal, two-assist performance.
“He’s won a Stanley Cup,” Acciari, who was also part of the trade with St. Louis, said of that season’s playoff MVP.
“This is his time.”
Rielly — not to be confused with O’Reilly — said the 2019 Selke Trophy winner as the league’s top defensive forward continually rises to the occasion.
“How he rolls,” said the Toronto defenceman. “Playing against him and now playing with him, you can tell that he really likes those moments and those challenges.”
Leafs centre Auston Matthews, whose club is looking for its first series win since 2004, said O’Reilly is a student of his craft.
“Great brain,” he said. “A guy that makes you earn it.”
“Knows what it takes to go the distance,” added Toronto winger Mitch Marner. “Comes in with just a calm mindset every time. He does everything right.”
O’Reilly suffered a broken foot in January when he was still with the Blues before fracturing a finger in March following the trade, which means he’s only played 56 combined games this season.
“We got him for these moments,” said Keefe, who moved O’Reilly off a line with John Tavares following the Game 1 debacle to form an effective trio with Acciari and Knies.
“Pretty evident the impact on the game that he has,” Tavares said. “Just gets it done.”
O’Reilly will hope to continue on that path Monday when Toronto looks to take a 3-1 stranglehold on the best-of-seven matchup with Tampa.
“We knew he was going to be an important member of our team,” Keefe said. “He certainly has been in this series.”
Leafs netminder Ilya Samsonov wasn’t available to reporters following Saturday’s game or Sunday’s media availability after speaking in the wake of Games 1 and 2.
Lightning counterpart Andrei Vasilevskiy, meanwhile, hasn’t spoken publicly since the start of the playoffs.
“Have you been talking to Vasilevsky at all in this series?” Keefe replied when asked why Samsonov has been silenced.
“Just let him play goal.”
Knies said the goaltender still does plenty of chatting behind the scenes.
“He’s actually really funny,” said the 20-year-old. “Some of the little things he does, it’s different. He’s quite the character.
“The way he chats and just like moves around the rink … it’s so Russian, I don’t know how to explain it.”
KNIES ON PRIZE
The winger was on the ice in the dying moments of Game 3 before O’Reilly tied the score as he continues to gain Keefe’s trust.
Knies played three regular-season contests after signing with the Leafs earlier this month at the conclusion of his NCAA season with the University of Minnesota.
“Can make a play and be a difference maker,” Keefe said.
The Phoenix native actually lost U.S. college hockey’s Frozen Four final at Tampa’s Amalie Arena on April 8.
“I’m a little more mature than I thought I was,” Knies said of what he’s learned about himself over a whirlwind two-week stretch. “It’s just been fun learning from everyone here.
“It’s pretty cool to take in all the day-to-day process and get to be amongst some of the best players in the world.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 23, 2023.
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press