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

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

Yes, in a game buzzing with Auston Matthews and Artemi Panarin, Mitch Marner and Mika Zibanejad, the only man who could locate the back of the net 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.

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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.

“They’re playing really good hockey, and they’re a very dynamic, high-powered team,” Rangers power forward Chris Kreider said.

“One of the best teams in the league.”

What makes a good hockey team?

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Superb goaltending? Check.

Centre depth? Check.

A power play that sends shivers? Check.

A serious commitment to defence? Check. (Believe it.)

Over a smartly played 60 minutes by both sides, there was sense of mutual respect for the other’s greatest weapons. Odd-man rushes and sloppy gaffes were difficult to come by, as Toronto and New York skated through some organized hockey, trying to keep the other to the outside as best as possible.

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“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.”

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Trouba could’ve been breaking down either side with that slice of analysis.

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

Morgan Rielly pumped Toronto on the board before the night was four minutes old.

Benefitting from a nice cycle shift by the Leafs’ fourth line, the No. 1 defenceman 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 toward the Rangers’ goal, flustered Trouba with a silky toe-drag and snapped the puck five-hole.

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Dryden Hunt narrowed the gap in the third period when he slammed a Ryan Strome rebound past Jack Campbell.

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

“He’s just getting better and better,” defenceman Rasmus Sandin said of Campbell. “Sometimes it’s hard to think he’s going to get better, because he’s playing on top of the world right now. So, he’s been unreal.”

The Maple Leafs are rolling four lines, winning special teams battles, and have now won 10 of their past 11 games.

They look — dare we say it? — consistent.

Fox’s Fast 5

• Chris 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.

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“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.

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“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. The hockey crowd erupted with a loud ovation for the former Blue Jay.

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