TORONTO – William Nylander was twisting himself up in knots.
He had gone 11 games without scoring a goal and came out like a dog on a bone trying to change his fortune. He forechecked, forced turnovers, fought through traffic for a wraparound and then found himself with the slightest glimpse of open real estate on a night where there wouldn’t be much to be found.
Guess what happened next?
His backhand sailed past Cory Schneider’s glove and just wide of the left post.
“I had a couple chances,” said Nylander. “I thought the backhand there was a little rattling.”
You don’t often hear an expression of doubt from a kid so smooth and skilled that he barely shows evidence of a pulse while slicing through opposing defences. He grew up in NHL dressing rooms and has looked like he belonged in this one ever since arriving in February 2016.
Consider it proof that top-end talent and genetics and experience aren’t even enough to spare you from the harsh realities of this game. Luck comes and goes while chasing vulcanized rubber around the ice. Even the game-breakers get humbled.
“The NHL sends you for long stretches,” said Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who both coddled and cajoled Nylander during his. “Every other league you played in, they never, ever sent you for stretches. You’re not used to it.
“No one knew before when you didn’t score. Now everybody writes about it every day and you can’t help yourself, you’ve got to look at your phone every second you’re away from the rink. It doesn’t matter what [the coach tells] them, it’s what they do.”
For Nylander, the pressure had built and built over nearly four weeks. It included games where he had tons of scoring chances and the last three where they were harder to come by with linemate/partner-in-crime Auston Matthews out injured.
The first period of Thursday’s visit by the New Jersey Devils saw him fire three pucks on Schneider in addition to the missed backhander.
“I was a little rattled they weren’t going in,” he said.
Then his moment arrived.
Nylander jumped on the ice with 1:01 to play in an unhinged overtime of a 0-0 game. He found Morgan Rielly with a saucer pass to send him in alone, but Schneider stopped it. Then he lost track of his man at the other end of the ice and needed Frederik Andersen to deny Taylor Hall on a glorious opportunity.
There was almost nothing left in Nylander’s legs as he carried the puck back into the Devils zone. That told him time was running short when he curled off the boards and beat Schneider low to the glove side at 4:57.
He was so exhausted that the celebration involved him skating backwards and slowly receding into a crouched position. Game over. Streak over.
“I told him to go thank Freddie because he [would] never [have] scored,” said Babcock. “He needed to score a goal, right? He hasn’t scored in a while. … When you haven’t scored in a while as a young guy, you get thinking too much instead of just playing and working.
“We’ve got to get our guys convinced of that. If you just work everything works out fine.”
There were a lot of threads you could pull on following Toronto’s fifth straight victory. Andersen’s 42-save shutout was his steadiest performance of the season and winning another game without Matthews put more valuable points in the bank.
However, you could sense the relief that came with seeing Nylander set free.
“If you’re a point-getter, you think you should be doing that every night,” said Babcock.
Unfortunately, droughts are a fact of life in this line of work.
Nylander finished his rookie season with 22 goals despite enduring stretches of nine and 13 games without one before December. Teammate Mitchell Marner suffered through a 17-gamer that ended last weekend and has looked like a new man ever since.
Even Sidney Crosby went 11 games before scoring against Buffalo on Tuesday, saying afterwards that there was some relief in seeing the puck go in the net.
As the games went by for Nylander, it became harder to stick to the process. He hadn’t been generating as much offensively as he did at the beginning of the drought.
“Through three games there at one point, I had like 20 shots almost and none of them went in,” said Nylander. “You know it’s going to come eventually. It’s just, uh, I mean I want to score, too. It’s not like I don’t [put] pressure on myself either to score.
“You just know it will come.”
Nylander paused for a moment.
“Finally, it went in.”