Nylander has shown himself to be a good understudy since being forced into the middle by Kadri’s suspension, drawing praise from Mike Babcock for his defensive commitment in a Game 3 win over the Boston Bruins and then barely leaving the offensive zone thanks to a smothering performance in Game 4.
“I think he’s going in the right direction,” Babcock said Thursday.
It’s an encouraging trend with the series knotted 2-2 and Kadri ineligible to return until Round 2, should the Leafs advance that far. They will need more reliable minutes from Nylander in order to do it, especially during Friday’s game in Boston when Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy takes back last line change and may choose to get Patrice Bergeron the occasional shift against Toronto’s bottom six.
Nylander has managed his matchups well against Charlie Coyle and Noel Acciari so far, and even thrived in the minutes he received against David Krejci on Wednesday night. He and linemates Patrick Marleau and Connor Brown emerged from Game 4 having controlled 81.5 per cent of shot attempts — outshooting the Bruins 13-2 and out-chancing them 14-3 in the process.
“I was impressed with that group,” said Babcock. “They were our best line early in the game when the rest of us weren’t quite as good and gave us a chance to get going. They scored a big goal for us, too, down the stretch there to give us a chance in the game. I liked that group last night.”
Consider it a feather in the cap of Nylander, who had to bounce back from a ghastly turnover that gifted Danton Heinen a goal in Game 2 while being forced into a higher-leverage situation because Kadri removed himself from the series by cross-checking Jake DeBrusk in the head.
Even with limited experience playing centre in the regular season, it was no sure thing.
“We need him to really commit defensively,” Babcock said earlier this week. “That’s a way different job than being a winger. To have success, he’s got to be good without the puck.”
When Nylander is at his best, the puck rarely leaves his stick. It was stuck to his blade like velcro during a Game 4 where he transported it and protected it in the Bruins zone.
Tuukka Rask made a sharp save on him when he found daylight and attempted to pick a bottom corner early. He shot high with another good look that could have produced his second goal of the series.
It’s been a challenging and unusual season for Nylander, starting with the two-month contract stalemate that kept him out of the lineup until December. He needed another month or more afterwards to regain his hands and confidence against NHL competition.
“Feel, and feeling like you can make plays and stuff like that,” Nylander explained. “I think, especially with the puck. That’s what was missing. Just getting the full mojo back and the confidence going.”
He’s viewing these playoffs as a chance to write a better story than the one he’s authored so far. Helping the Leafs play on without their No. 3 centre would be a good start.
Where Kadri’s absence hurts most is in the way it limits Babcock’s ability to juggle his wingers. Kasperi Kapanen has struggled alongside Auston Matthews and would be a candidate to be swapped out for Nylander if Kadri was still in this series.
Instead, they’ll have to forge on with the 22-year-old Swede lining up down the middle. That he’s put in a couple good efforts there already should bring some comfort with the Leafs needing to win at least one more game at TD Garden to advance in this series.
“In the end, to get to where we want to go, we’ve got to push through and overcome [obstacles] like we’re about to face,” said Babcock. “I’m excited for our group, it’s all part of growing as a team and building a program here that has a chance each and every year.”
Consider Friday night another growing opportunity for Nylander.