The savvy 6-foot-5, 225-pound Winnipeg Jets captain barrelled in on a 31-game rookie retrieving a dumped puck from his own corner. Wheeler spotted a 21-year-old defenceman six inches and 40 pounds smaller and reached for a forecheck, figuring either (a) Sandin would move his feet and try to skirt contact or (b) if the two men were to collide, the bigger one in full stride wouldn’t be harmed.
Sandin held his ice and delivered a clean, hard reverse hit, sending Wheeler reeling. He immediately faced retaliation from Kyle Connor, who rushed to his dazed teammate’s defence. Sandin drew the penalty, earning his team a power-play.
Combine that sturdy shoulder with a smooth 4-on-4 breakout pass that ignited a William Nylander–to–John Tavares rush goal, plus a little peek on the top power-play unit, and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ most prized defence prospect is making his presence felt. Loud.
"I feel stronger overall," Sandin said. "I have a little bit more pop overall in my legs during the whole game. I don't feel that I get tired as quick as I did before. Down in the corners, I think I can battle and handle guys a lot better than I could last year."
What a time to come alive.
Following the Maple Leafs’ 4-1 victory in Winnipeg Saturday, the club has a scant eight games remaining before its opening night playoff roster needs submission.
Sandin — appearing in just his fourth NHL game in the past 410 days — may be late to the party, but he looks every inch a crasher.
“Sandy’s phenomenal,” Tavares said. “He’s got a little bite to his game. He’s able to hold his own. When you’ve got a lot of guys forechecking on you as a D-man, that’s important to have. Even for a guy who’s not the biggest, his ability to hold the zone, take the pressure, absorb it and give it back a little bit is fantastic.”
Mitch Marner is taken by how seamlessly Sandin has filled the void.
“He played his first game in a crazy amount of days, and he was perfectly in sync. I think he fits our system very well and plays responsibly and plays smart with the puck,” Marner said. “He makes a lot of great decisions coming up the ice with the puck and makes it hard on forwards to put their finger on where he’s going.”
On an evening in which the Maple Leafs dressed five left-shot defencemen, the eager Swede shone with a plus-2 showing, an assist, and the (legal) hit of the night.
It feels like a forgone conclusion that the Maple Leafs, now eight points up on the rest of the country, will claim the top seed in Canada. Yet the bottom of the club’s playoff lineup is very much in flux, and Zach Bogosian’s shoulder injury has opened the gates of opportunity.
Partner Travis Dermott will get some run on his unnatural right side and the penalty kill, while Sandin makes his case by pitching in on the power play.
Eyebrows raised Saturday when he was given a shift in Morgan Rielly’s usual spot, quarterbacking the Leafs’ loaded top unit 5-on-4.
“The power play is a big part of his game. He's got great confidence there. I've seen him from a very young age at the American League level take over a power play," head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "We knew when we had him in the lineup we wanted to introduce him to the power play and give him an opportunity.
“The way he moves the puck with his confidence that he has at 5-on-5 really helps us. He doesn't get rattled by much at all. He's a competitive guy. He's getting better and better every game, and that's really what you want to see with a young player.”
Waiting in the wings is deadline acquisition Ben Hutton, who has cleared quarantine but has yet to suit up for his new club.
“Sandin is more of a priority for us right now, to get him up and going,” Keefe said this week.
At the very least, we are seeing a preview of the Leafs' future, as entry-level contributors like Sandin are integral to success in a flat-cap world.
But the 2018 first-rounder speaks and acts like a player ready to win the job yesterday.
Sandin was already patient watching Toronto try out KHL import Mikko Lehtonen early in the season. Then he endured weeks of rehab after suffering a broken foot during a Marlies stint. He’s twiddled his thumbs on the taxi squad.
“I'm a guy that wants everything quick. I want it now,” Sandin said, reflecting on his road back to the show. “You know, it’s been a long time since I’ve played a game. The last couple games overall have been really fun getting back into it.”
Joe Thornton talks about how well-liked Sandin — a called-up kid surrounded by established stars — is by his teammates, how well he skates, and how much he likes Sandin’s edge.
“The boys love him, and he's playing real well,” Thornton said.
“He's only going to get better.”