Leafs' Nylander Had to Play Hero, Both for Himself and the Team

With injuries piling up and a red-hot goalie standing in their way, William Nylander stepped up to be the goal-scoring hero the Leafs needed.
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The Toronto Maple Leafs needed a hero on Wednesday night and William Nylander couldn't have been more eager to play the part.

Faced with a lengthy list of injuries and facing a red-hot goaltender who seemingly had their number, Nylander scored the tying goal with 1:26 remaining in regulation and the overtime winner to help the Leafs come from behind to defeat the Calgary Flames 2-1.

"He's been skating well with the puck," Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. "I think I said the other night that it feels like he's been waiting and ready to break out, so that's good."

Nylander, who had just one goal in his last 10 games before his two-goal outburst, had the heat turned up on him last week when Keefe benched the skilled winger for the final 8:45 of the team's 5-3 win against Montreal Canadiens on Saturday.

With injuries piling up at every position, players like Nylander had to step up. The Leafs were shutout by the Flames 3-0 in the first of a two-game set on Monday. David Rittich, a surprise starter or the injured Jakob Markstrom, made 34 saves in the victory. He looked even better on Wednesday with several highlight-reel stops, helping his team keep the game goalless for 56 minutes and 33 seconds.

Andrew Mangiapane broke the stalemate in Calgary's favor with 3:27 in regulation time, when he was left alone in the slot and buried a Matthew Tkachuk pass past Leafs goaltender Michael Hutchinson for a 1-0 lead.

Nylander was near Mangiapane at the time of the goal. He made a last-ditch effort to lift the Flames forward's stick, but whiffed on the attempt.

With the net empty, Nylander jammed a puck past Rittich to tie the game 1-1. In overtime, Nylander picked up a drop pass from Auston Matthews and beat the Flames goaltender at 1:06.

"He is such a big part of our hockey team and our locker room, with his personality and his drive to be a great player," Leafs captain John Tavares said. "So it's awesome to see him get two big ones tonight, I know it's very uplifting for him."

The 24-year-old has been a polarizing figure since he was drafted 8th overall by the Leafs in the 2014. While his supporters enjoy his speed and skill with his production aided by analytics, his detractors point to his play away from the puck and mistakes that don't pass the eye test.

"It's always been around me with that kind of stuff," Nylander said of his critics "I know I have underperformed and I know I can do better."

Some of the vitriol from Nylander haters can also stem to the lengthy contract battle the Swede had with management, resulting in him missing more than the first two months of the 2018-19 season. With a $6,962,333 salary cap hit, critics point to Nylander as trade bait to improve other areas.

"He gets misunderstood a lot of the time," Zach Hyman said of Nylander. "The guys in the locker room know how much he cares and how much he wants to win."

While the criticism dulls when Nylander scores, it doesn't seem like it will go away anytime soon. But Nylander's acknowledgement of his faults is a positive sign.

"He's got to find more consistency in his game," Keefe said of Nylander. "He's got to be engaged and good without the puck.

"Part of it is maybe being misunderstood, but part of it is he's still got to grow as a player."

Hutchinson

Making his third start in the last four games, Hutchinson was solid in the Maple Leafs' net. He made 18 of 19 saves. His first was a tricky redirection from Sam Bennett in the opening minute of the game.

"I really focused on rebound control and when they did get an opportunity to just limit it to just one shot," Hutchinson said.

Starting goaltender Frederik Andersen remains day-to-day with a lower body injury. Backup goalie Jack Campbell, who has missed the last month with a leg injury, practiced with the team and is trending towards returning to action at some point during the Leafs' five-game road trip.

Matthews and his wrist

Auston Matthews assisted on both of Nylander's goals. He was seen on the bench taping his wrist after a collision along the boards.

Keefe acknowledged that the injury is one Matthews has been dealing with all season. Incredibly, he's been able to put 31 points this season with the ailment.

Power play futility

After exploding for three power play goals against the Canadiens on Saturday, the team's success with the man advantage dried up against the Flames.

They were 0-for-7 on Monday and 0-for-4 on Wednesday.

"We're definitely out of sync," Keefe said. "We've been bouncing around with units and part of that is injuries."

Wayne Simmonds was an intimidating presence in front of the net and scored three power-play goals before suffering a broken wrist earlier in the month.

Joe Thornton, first missing 10 games with a rib fracture and the last two with a lower-body injury, has also been a steady presence with the man advantage.

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