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Foligno injury underscores Maple Leafs’ challenge balancing health, momentum

Morgan Rielly was asked if a team would rather arrive at the start of the playoffs in top form or with a full complement of healthy players.

“Well both, I think, is ideal,” Rielly said. “But realistically that’s a challenge.”

This is the delicate line his Toronto Maple Leafs are trying to walk right now and the challenge had just been underscored during Monday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens that saw Nick Foligno miss the final 27 minutes with an injury.

When you’ve still got games to play you have to play. And injuries are an unavoidable part of hockey, which the Leafs have seen during a two-week stretch where they’d already lost Justin Holl (puck to face), Zach Hyman (sprained MCL) and Zach Bogosian (shoulder).

It really wasn’t clear what sent Foligno to the dressing room late in the second period. He’d got his skates tangled with Joel Edmundson and slid into the boards on his third-last shift of the night. And he grabbed at his left leg after stopping innocently at the edge of Jake Allen’s crease immediately before gingerly walking off.

The Leafs called it an upper-body injury, but didn’t provide any specifics.

“I don’t have any word on him, no,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said post-game. “We have a day off [Tuesday] so we’ll just see how it settles down and know more on the next practice day [Wednesday].”

Losing Foligno for any length of time would be particularly crushing under the circumstances. He’s still getting up to speed in his new organization, having dressed for just five games since coming over from Columbus at the trade deadline, and there was next to nothing riding on the game where he went down.

The Leafs basically have the North Division’s regular-season title wrapped up, but are choosing to push hard through the finish. They kept Foligno, Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Jack Campbell out of the second half of a back-to-back last week but otherwise haven’t shown any inclination towards load management beyond spreading around ice time more evenly in-game.

“I think what we want to change [compared to] the past couple years is you enter the playoffs rolling,” Rielly said. “Playing well, playing confident and not stumbling. Like you’re confident with your structure, you know what you’re doing and then you go and you execute well.”

They liked much of what happened at 5-on-5 against Montreal, where they outscored their opponent 2-0, generated 88 per cent of the high-danger chances and 54 per cent of the expected goals. But the Canadiens countered with a Tyler Toffoli power-play goal and Phillip Danault’s equalizer with 52 seconds left in regulation with Allen pulled for an extra attacker.

Cole Caufield then froze the clock in overtime for the second time in three days.

“I thought we played well enough to win the game and it comes down to just kind of a flukey goal to tie it up and send it into overtime,” said Campbell, who made 20 saves.

Added Rielly: “I think if you break down turnovers, you break down odd-man rushes, I thought we were OK.”

The reality is that Foligno’s injury situation overshadowed the result and another goal from Auston Matthews, who now incredibly has 18 to show for his last 18 games and is lapping the league with 39 on the season.

Foligno was acquired from the Blue Jackets for a first-round pick and two fourth-rounders — a hefty price that reflects the intangible qualities the 33-year-old winger carries. Keefe noted how much confidence emanated from him when he first joined the group in the meal room at Winnipeg’s Delta Hotel on April 21 and teammates have been impressed by his willingness to make his voice heard in the dressing room so soon.

“It’s not easy joining a new team late, but we have a pretty open group in there,” Muzzin said. “He comes in and he’s been vocal. He doesn’t want to talk out of line, but I talked to him the other day about just being yourself; he knows what to do, he’s been around.”

You could argue that Foligno stands to benefit most from these final regular-season games because of his unfamiliar surroundings and now it’s unclear if he’ll be in any position to play them.

He’s got four assists to show for his brief time in Toronto manning the left wing alongside Matthews and Mitch Marner, and Keefe wanted to find him minutes elsewhere just to get a look at other possibilities before the post-season arrived.

“Every day I’m getting more comfortable with the room, the training staff, the coaches, the system, but also full-well knowing there’s certain attributes that I can bring that will help move that along,” Foligno said Monday morning. “As my game starts to get more comfortable, more stuff will come out.”

The sight of him hobbling off the ice three minutes before the second intermission was worrying.

“Yeah it’s obviously not great,” Rielly said. “I think even in the weeks he’s been here, he’s been able to lead and provide influence on guys and [offer] different points of view, different perspectives.

“I think he’s been outstanding. He’s just kind of meshed right into our group.”

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