William Nylander’s spectacular shift almost erases largely poor game

Jared McCann scored the OT winner as the Florida Panthers edged the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2.

SUNRISE, Fla. – Is a single shift enough to excuse or forgive a multitude of sins? Is it enough even if it comes on a night when your team comes away with a single point?

Most of the time probably not but Tuesday night it was for William Nylander.

At least it should have been.

Nylander’s performance in five furious seconds keyed the Toronto Maple Leafs’ comeback from two goals down in the second period and allowed Toronto to salvage a point in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers.

As far as his team’s performance, Leafs coach Mike Babcock was about as sanguine as you could hope for in the situation.

“We got down 2-0 and battled our way back on a back-to-back night,” Babcock said. “We probably deserved two points of the four we got and that’s what we got [on the Florida swing.]”

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On the matter of Nylander, well, Babcock is well paid to be hard to impress. He basically brushed off a suggestion that a sensational play made by Nylander might represent some sort of breakthrough moment. He spoke of a “growth process” and that with mature professionalism great efforts are less remarkable than they are habitual.

Nylander received a sharply critical review from Babcock after the Leafs’ 4-3 shootout loss in Tampa Monday night.

Against the Lightning, Babcock had slotted Nylander in at centre, subbing in for the injured Auston Matthews, and the coach said he wasn’t impressed at all with his game away from his usual position on the wing. And sure enough, against the Panthers, Babcock had shifted Nylander back to usual spot and moved the newly acquired Tomas Plekanec to center.

Through the first 30 minutes against the Panthers, Nylander didn’t really stand out. He fumbled the puck on the perimeter a couple of times, couldn’t get them to sit down when he needed. He couldn’t get a shot off on the cycle. It wasn’t his fault that the home took a 2-0 lead on a goal by Jonathan Huberdeau less than two minutes into the second period. Even though Dominic Moore got a goal back a couple of shifts later, it looked like a game that was going to get away from Toronto.

If you’re going to win down the stretch, you can’t look to the fourth liners to take you there.

If you’re looking for someone to step up and fill the void when Matthews is out, you reflexively glance Nylander’s way. For 30 minutes he hadn’t made a ripple in the run of play, basically the effort from one night carrying over to the next. Chemistry with the veteran Plekanec? No evidence of that.

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It looked like the Leafs were going to flat-line in Fort Lauderdale as spring loomed just as they did a year ago – that was a 7-2 drubbing last March, right after an Instagram shot of a Leafs fishing cruise broke the Internet for a couple of hours.

That memory faded and the game turned on the tying goal which was scored by Zach Hyman but really 90-something percent of Nylander’s skill and effort.

The Panthers’ Evgenii Dadonov was carrying the puck up the middle of the ice and seemed destined to carry it into the Toronto end. Nylander skated hard and stripped Dadonov of the puck, pivoted and poured in on the Florida goal. Panthers defenceman Keith Yandle couldn’t handle Nylander’s pace and tried a desperation tackle. Up went the ref’s arm for a delayed penalty but that was moot. Somehow Nylander picked up Hyman in the rear-view mirror. Credit to Hyman for closing hard and going to the net but he had to think that it was going to be a rebound he’d try to cash rather than a back-pass right on the tape.

“I saw him in the corner [of my eye],” Nylander said.

To Nylander’s credit, he wasn’t dancing in the end zone after the game. A single play, well, he’ll leave others, not including his coach to dwell on that.

Nylander’s night could have turned out far worse, you suppose. In the late going there must have been a lump in Nylander’s throat. With no real significant pressure in his own end with left than five minutes in regulation, Nylander tried to bank the puck off the glass to relieve a bit of pressure in the Leafs’ end. As big as the glass is, somehow he missed and had the Leafs killing a penalty. The visitors’ power play and Curtis McElhinney spared Nylander some grief by keep the two minutes spotless if not uneventful.

On the flip side, he would have compelled his coach to lighten up a bit if he had scored on a pretty amazing play in overtime as well. He came down the left side of the ice 150 feet with Aaron Ekblad, the Panthers’ best defenceman, marking him in what should have been a one-on-one lock-up. A slick change of pace had Ekblad taking on water and Nylander knifing in on Robert Luongo, forcing Bobby Lou to make one of the best of the 37 stops he would make on the night.

That was just a couple of shifts and maybe four odd-man rushes before Jared McCann scored on McElhinney on a breakaway to close out the game.

The Leafs are practicing in Sunrise before heading off to Washington on this roadie and Nylander’s work remains in progress.

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