TORONTO — Nikita Soshnikov wasn’t scared. Or so he said and looked in the first shootout attempt of his NHL career.
The Maple Leafs’ exciting 22-year-old rookie held the puck on his backhand before flinging it between the pads of Islanders goaltender Thomas Greiss. It was the shootout winner in a 4-3 Leafs victory, one that helped the club avoid a season-long seven-game losing streak.
Toronto had lost six straight coming into the night, including the last five by a single goal.
Soshnikov was one of three rookies to shine for the club in the victory, just the sixth in the past 28 games for the Leafs (6-18-4). Nineteen-year-old William Nylander scored the game-tying goal in the dying minutes of regulation while 23-year-old Zach Hyman also found the back of the net for the second time in as many games.
“First couple games you’re obviously a little bit star-struck because this is what you’ve been dreaming of since you were little,” Hyman said. “But once you settle in you realize that they’re just hockey players as well and you feel you can compete against them.”
It was the first game the Leafs have won since recalling the three youngsters (as well as the recently re-assigned Kasperi Kapanen) from the Toronto Marlies last week and a helpful glimpse into the future for Leafs head coach Mike Babcock.
Babcock has never suffered the 44 losses Toronto has currently in any of his previous 12 NHL seasons.
“My mindset, is it different? Yes, ” Babcock said Wednesday morning. “On the off-days you can think about big-term picture and all that, on game days let’s win a game.”
Nylander helped make that happen.
With father and former NHL centre Michael Nylander in attendance at the Air Canada Centre, the former eighth-overall pick pushed home a rebound past Greiss with 1:13 left in regulation, tying the score at three.
The Leafs head coach felt it was the finest game of his young career “by a mile”.
Babcock would have preferred not to have Nylander playing centre in first tour of the NHL, but was forced to because of injuries. He believed Nylander to be more engaged on Wednesday night, skating forcefully for the first time.
Soshnikov and Hyman have impressed from the start.
“They’re real players, they’re going to play,” Babcock said. “They’re just too good and too hard and too fast and too much work ethic. Those guys will play.”
An undrafted free agent signing of the Leafs last spring, Soshnikov has scored twice in his first six NHL games, pounding out 21 hits along the way. His electric shootout move against the Islanders came from the arsenal of former Calgary Flames prospect Yiri Trubachev, whom Soshnikov briefly played with in the KHL.
Soshnikov has employed the move in the AHL this season. Hyman, a teammate previously with the Marlies, knew it was coming and told veteran NHLers Brooks Laich and Ben Smith as much on the bench.
“He’s not intimidated by anything,” Babcock said. “He plays against good players. He plays with speed. He plays without the puck. He’s hard. Looks like he can score. He’s good.”
Hyman, formerly of Michigan University and a Florida Panthers draft pick traded to Toronto last summer, shoveled a rebound past Greiss to knot the score at one midway through the first frame. He managed a similar marker two days earlier against the Buffalo Sabres for his first NHL goal.
John Tavares opened the scoring on a breakaway, the two teams trading goals right up until Nylander’s game-tying marker late in regulation. Celebrating his 22nd birthday, Morgan Rielly also scored for the Leafs while Nick Leddy and Ryan Strome joined the scoresheet for New York.
Another one-goal loss would have been the sixth straight for Toronto, a franchise record that was ultimately avoided.
“We’ve been close every night I’ve actually been up so I think it was nice to get the win tonight,” Nylander said.
Prior to the game the Leafs announced their participation in the first-ever NHL Centennial Classic. Toronto will host the Detroit Red Wings at BMO Field on Jan. 1, 2017, a celebration of both the league and Leafs 100th season.
Team president Brendan Shanahan hoped his group was further in the building process by that point, describing the current year as one of growth and change. The Leafs currently sit last in the NHL with 55 points.
“We want to be better,” he said. “Without deviating from what our overall plan is we want to be as good as soon as we can.”
Like Babcock, Shanahan said he saw plenty of promise in the team’s young players and was pleased that they were getting a first taste of life in the NHL. That measuring tool, he noted, would help them prepare for next season.
“We’ve been working hard and trying to get better every day,” Nylander said. “It’s hard always coming to the NHL for the first time and trying to play the game you’ve been playing all year. It’s been going well so far.”