CHICAGO – Everything about William Nylander’s sophomore season has felt off by a degree or two. Far from awful, somewhere south of great, just … not quite clicking exactly as he’d hoped.
He even felt off-kilter during seven largely fruitless shifts in the first period of Wednesday’s visit to the United Center.
Then came an important discovery: The Bauer stick he’d been wielding against the Chicago Blackhawks wasn’t actually his own. It belonged instead to teammate Connor Brown, who at one point along the way had come to mimic the pattern Nylander uses – thus creating the possibility Nos. 28 and 29 might accidentally get crossed up.
“They look exactly the same because they’re in the stick bag and you don’t really see anything,” said Nylander, carefully recounting his steps. “So you just know sort of what your sticks look like. We have the same curve, everything, the same kind of stick, same flex. If I look at that stick, I’m like, ‘This is my stick.’ If you cover up the name you wouldn’t know what stick it was, or whose it was.
“When I was shooting, I was just feeling like it feels a little different. But I didn’t really think about it because every stick’s a little different. So I was just like, ‘Whatever,’ and then, ‘Oh.'”
The Eureka moment arrived while sitting on the bench before his first shift of the second period. A closer look at the shaft tipped him off on the problem.
It was something Nylander was howling about with teammates in the dressing room afterwards – after he got his hands on the right tool and used it to deke Jeff Glass on a penalty shot just six seconds into overtime, tying the NHL’s regular-season record for quickest goal in the extra period.
Everything got a little easier for the 21-year-old winger once he sorted out the stick issue. He’d been sprung for a breakaway in the second period and was handed another late in the third, and kept stubbornly returning to the same move on the Blackhawks goalie until he finally beat him.
“[On the penalty shot] I just thought I needed to throw a little harder fake on him, so he’d bite on that one,” said Nylander. “The third time’s a lucky charm.”
It salvaged a game that forever seemed to be skidding away from the Leafs. They saw Chicago dominate the opening 20 minutes – prompting coach Mike Babcock to strap dynamite to his defence pairs in an act of desperation – and strike iron with three different shots by the midway point.
Even after Toronto pulled ahead 2-1 with 15 minutes to play in regulation, it promptly saw the Blackhawks tie it up on a power play. To make matters worse, Nick Schmaltz’s goal was banged in while teammate Artem Anisimov appeared to have a knee on Frederik Andersen’s back – and yet Babcock’s challenge for goaltender interference didn’t prompt referee Francis Charron to reverse the call after seeing the play slowed down on video review.
That was the second such challenge to go against the Leafs this week after Auston Matthews had a goal brought back in Monday’s 4-2 loss to Colorado despite only make slight contact with Jonathan Bernier’s blocker.
Babcock has admitted to being perplexed at what does and doesn’t constitute goaltender interference, but had the luxury of biting his tongue after Nylander salvaged the second point – saying only “yeah” when asked for his thoughts on the play.
“Yeah, I mean, I don’t know,” said Andersen. “You never know. We got the two points and that’s really all I have to say about it.”
The Leafs managed two rare wins against the Blackhawks in the season series – with Matthews scoring an overtime winner in October and Nylander delivering Toronto’s first victory in this building since 2003.
That was before Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane arrived here, before an era of excellence punctuated by their three Stanley Cup triumphs. It’s an era that seems to be slipping through their fingers while younger teams like the Leafs are on the rise.
And yet, those old stars still shone bright in Wednesday’s game – with Toews’ line controlling play against Matthews, Nylander and Zach Hyman after seeing it go the other way in the previous meeting.
“Jonathan Toews had the puck the whole time in the first 30 minutes,” said Babcock. “Obviously, he’s a veteran player, and Matthews is a good player, but Toews knows how to play. It takes you a while to learn how to play in this league – to play right and face the puck and get used to playing against good players.”
That’s still where Nylander is at.
He’s shooting a little bit less than he did during his rookie season, and scoring a little bit less, but can draw some confidence from the opportunity to finish strong like he did a year ago. His overtime winner was a beauty – “He can pull any move off; it’s really about what he feels like doing,” said Andersen – and should come with a shot of confidence following so many recent near-misses.
There seemed to be a weight off his shoulders as he chuckled through the story about using the wrong stick while carefully sizing it up for any discernible differences from the real thing.
Eventually he handed it over to trainer Bobby Hastings, who asked where he’d like it to be kept.
“Do whatever you want with it,” Nylander replied.