• Maple Leafs no longer an easy win
• William Nylander among crop of talent Leafs want to keep
• Nylander, Matthews and Marner all producing on separate lines
TORONTO – It was a night calling for a game-breaker.
That actually favoured a Toronto Maple Leafs team armed with three at the ready.
And while it was Vladimir Tarasenko who froze the clock 20 seconds into overtime, earning St. Louis a 2-1 victory in the process, it would be a shame to let Thursday’s result cloud just how drastically the horizon has changed here with the arrival of Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander.
Each is plenty capable of conjuring a solo rush to end a game. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a chance in 3-on-3 as Leafs coach Mike Babcock went with Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov and Morgan Rielly to start overtime – only to see Tarasenko deliver the quick dagger.
“We could have had a better scheme there,” said Babcock. “We could have stayed up with him at the end there and been tighter on him instead of standing still. Obviously, he’s a good player.”
A good player, you say?
Finally, Toronto has a few too. They aren’t merely passersby at Air Canada Centre who change in the visitor’s dressing room before quickly jetting off to the next city.
This is real and often spectacular.
Even in a game that featured just three goals, albeit one with 72 total shots, the Leafs rookie troika managed several individual moments that wouldn’t have been fathomed in these parts as recently as last year.
It makes the nagging speculation about Nylander’s supposed availability on the trade market seem completely asinine.
Either you’re getting a sure thing in return or you should be committed.
Rest assured, Leafs fans, there is no reason to doubt the sanity of Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and the other men pulling the levers in the executive suite.
Nylander isn’t going anywhere. Not before March 1. Not for a lot longer than that, barring some unforeseeable change of events.
We’re talking about a guy who lead the American Hockey League in scoring as a teenager and is currently on pace for a 56-point rookie NHL season. That’s something just 15 others have managed in the last decade!
Rather quietly, Nylander has also started displaying the level of competitiveness that Babcock was referencing when he delivered this soliloquy in October about what it takes for a young player to make an impression in the NHL.
“You’ve got to learn when the pucks there,” said Babcock, motioning at his feet, “you’ve got to compete for it. Like a pro does. That’s how he feeds his family. He’s got three kids at home and he feeds his family by winning that battle. You’ve just been skilling your way around because you’re better than everyone else. One guy knows what compete is, the other guy has no idea because he’s never had to.
“Now you can say ‘oh he’s very competitive’ – yeah, at the level they were at. This is a whole new level where men play against you.”
It’s hard to miss the strides in Nylander’s game. He got his stick on the puck while battling his way to the front of the net before Rielly’s tying goal on Thursday night. He was stationed there again for a quick spinning chance on Jake Allen in the third period.
He’s generated 38 shots on net in the last 11 games and produced his first career hat trick last Saturday in Boston.
What is easily lost is that Nylander, Marner and Matthews have spent most of the season playing on separate forward lines at even strength – making their offensive totals even more impressive. Babcock has the luxury of cycling through those three groups with a reasonable chance of producing a goal on any given shift.
Even with the Blues keeping excellent gaps and pressure, Matthews narrowly missed on a hard one-timer and a subsequent backhand off the rush. In the third period, Marner had Allen completely beat only to see the puck jump over his stick.
“I kind of looked up, saw the net and went to shoot it and the puck was nowhere to be found,” he said. “It’s a pretty crappy bounce, but it happens.”
After a dreadful first period, a victory was oh-so-close.
The Leafs found some solace in the fact they left with their 61st point.
“In the end, it was a pretty good game for us,” said Babcock. “It was a good point. I would have like to have two just like anybody who came to watch tonight but that didn’t happen. I liked the way we played, I liked how we got better, I liked the kind of game it was – instead of racing to 10 it was a real hockey game.”
A real hockey game spilling over with real hockey players.
A novel concept, that one.