New season. New narrative. New swagger.
Instead of hanging his head when his careless first-period stick infraction opened the window for the Boston Bruins’ deadly power-play to draw first blood, Nylander responded with the only highlight-reel goal Thursday night that did not involve Mitch Marner.
Gathering the puck along the left boards of the Leafs’ defensive zone, centre Nazem Kadri flung it cross-ice, deep and airborne through a maze of four black-and-gold sweaters, landing it smack on the blade of his streaking right winger.
“I just tried to get my head up as quick as possible. I knew Willy was somewhere over there, and I saw him in stride,” Kadri said. “I knew I had to put some extra juice on it to get it there.”
Watching from the bench, Auston Matthews said he had no idea where Kadri was going with his long bomb and was impressed that it found a path.
“Perfect. Tape to tape,” Nylander said. “Little sauce for the breakaway, so it was an amazing pass.”
And quite the finish for the Swede, who beat Tuukka Rask for the insurance goal on one of the three breakaways Boston surrendered in its 4-1 loss.
“I’ve been thinking just to hit the net,” said Nylander, who windmilled both arms in celebration and has already matched his 2018 output in playoff goals. “Good for the confidence.”
And better for the Maple Leafs, who instantly morph into a serious threat if their third unit of Patrick Marleau, Kadri and Nylander can continue to deliver performances like Thursday’s.
At a 55.6 per cent Corsi rate, the Kadri group proved the most territorially dominant of all Toronto’s lines, laying waste to the Bruins’ deadline-boosted counter of Marcus Johansson, Charlie Coyle and Danton Heinen (35.3%).
“We were able to generate a lot of chances and shut down the other line we were playing against. It was huge,” said Kadri, chest out, swagger rediscovered.
“It’s important. Me and Willy understand we’ve been able to generate some good chemistry in this little bit playing together. We know we can impact the game offensively, but we’ve got to play that 200-foot game, and I felt we were good all over the ice today.”
When was the last time we could say that about both Nylander and Kadri, pegged as regular-season disappointments and playoff X-factors?
No two Leafs were more in need of a fresh start, and now they’re trading turns on draws and leaning on each to rewrite the tale of their 2018-19.
Fumbling to find his niche as a third-line centre and missing a spell of games with a concussion, Kadri is coming off a season in which he produced his fewest-ever goals (16) as an NHL regular. Plus, he’s seeking redemption for recklessly getting suspended three games during last spring’s Bruins series.
Nylander, too, posted his most miserable statistical line, a fact underscored by his contractual dispute and a subsequent payday that could cause cap discomfort.
The most damning fact might be that the Maple Leafs dressed seven current 20-goal scorers at TD Garden, and despite exceeding that mark in the past, not one of Kadri, Nylander or Marleau could count themselves among that group.
But, boy, they’re awake now.
“It feels good. I think it might be the first time I had back-to-back goals this year,” said Nylander, who also scored off a pretty wraparound in Montreal on Saturday. “So, it’s good for me.”
He’s right. The last time Nylander found the net in consecutive games was April 2-5, 2018.
With assists in four consecutive games, Kadri will carry his longest point streak of the year into Game 2 on Saturday.
The aggressive but disciplined performance — he nailed Jake DeBrusk into the end boards and then proceeded to chirp his opponent from the bench — revealed shades of the old Kadri, engaged and cocky.
That the Leafs, the least physical club in the league, actually outhit their hosts 33-31 was both a pleasant surprise and a point of pride.
“Puck pressure. Being physical. We’ve shown we can keep up on that level. Once you start the game and you hit a couple people, I think they start to get paranoid about whether another hit’s coming,” Kadri said, happy to take on two waves of media scrum. “We turned it on tonight.
“I think we’re one of the fastest teams in the league. That’s going to be a problem for other teams to defend. That’s something we’ve got to take advantage of every single game. That forces mistakes and allows us to play with the puck more.
So when Matthews spoke about his belief in centre depth and commented, “We had everyone on board tonight,” the listener couldn’t help but think of Nylander and Kadri, who divvy up the line’s face-off duties.
A couple of minus players in a regular season that is so swiftly irrelevant, Kadri and Nylander were big pluses in this new season.
“It’s exactly what we wanted,” Kadri said. “More confidence. We feel like we’ve been here before. We’ve had that heartbreak. We understand what that feels like, and we don’t want it to happen again. So we’re going to do everything we can to hopefully change the outcome this year.”