How Sandin's maturity helped him navigate challenging season with Maple Leafs

The Hockey Night in Canada panel discuss the Toronto Maple Leafs coming alive in their Game 2 win over the Montreal Canadiens.

Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch.

Before Rasmus Sandin was called on to resuscitate a critically ill power play and before he became the youngest Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman to score a playoff goal in more than 34 years, that’s how his season started.

There was absolutely no indication he’d find himself in the mix come playoff time. This was just four months ago and he couldn’t even get in a game.

You could sense the frustration starting to seep in after Sandin finally got to play on Feb. 8, but saw just seven shifts while dressing as the Leafs seventh defenceman. Asked about that experience upon being sent to the American Hockey League soon after, he said: “I don’t know if I count that as a game, really. It was five minutes of ice time [but] I thought it was great putting on my gear again.”

The Leafs hadn’t lost faith in a recent first-round draft pick, but they’d seen his opportunities for development impacted by the pandemic. And they obviously didn’t believe he was ready to shoulder responsibility in a win-now season where KHL free agent Mikko Lehtonen knocked him down to eighth on the depth chart.

It’s what makes Sandin’s emerging role in this first-round playoff series with the Montreal Canadiens so unexpected and the goal he scored during Saturday’s 5-1 victory in Game 2 so important.

The team’s power play had been in such a state of distress that the coaching staff turned over the quarterbacking duties on the top unit to Sandin late in the regular season. They saw enough to keep him there to start the playoffs, scratching the more experienced Travis Dermott when Zach Bogosian returned from a shoulder injury.

The resolve in that decision only strengthened when Sandin one-timed a shot past Carey Price, especially after the PP had shown much crisper and quicker puck movement with him at the top. At 21 years 76 days, it made him the youngest Leafs defenceman to score in a playoff game since Al Iafrate in 1987.

And it came with a big sigh of relief for Sandin following a lengthy review because Montreal challenged for goaltender interference believing that Joe Thornton lifted Price’s stick.

"I was a little nervous, to be honest, because I haven’t scored in a year and a half or something like that,” said Sandin. “So I really wanted that to be a goal.”

He’s still only played in 12 games over the last 14 months. He’ll get No. 13 on Monday night at the Bell Centre with the series tied 1-1.

What makes his arrival now even more unlikely is that the window of opportunity only really opened because he fractured his foot blocking a shot with the Marlies and wound up making a trip to Western Canada with the Leafs last month because the AHL team was shut down by a positive COVID-19 case. He was at the end of his rehab period and got in a game. One then became eight because Bogosian got hurt.

Despite the long layoff, the injury and the memory of 12 healthy scratches to start the season, Sandin played with poise and assertiveness. He gave the Leafs the potential power-play answer they’ve desperately needed. And he won over his head coach in the process.

“I just think that with Rasmus, the payoff can be really big for us in terms of his skill set and what he can bring,” said Sheldon Keefe. “That requires a little extra patience on our side.”

It first required heaps of it from his.

This last year might have crushed the confidence of another young player. Or perhaps sent him down a path of frustration and anger that wouldn’t have left him ready to put his best foot forward when opportunity came his way.

But there’s an emotional maturity to Sandin that belies his age and served as an asset when his patience was tested.

You have to believe his close relationship with teammate/roommate William Nylander helped, too. There was a light moment following Saturday’s game when Nylander told reporters that he was actually the source of Sandin’s confidence: “He watches and he sees and he learns, you know?”

That line may have been both funny and true.

Nylander’s self-belief ranks up there with his edge work. He and Sandin have been training together back home in Sweden for a couple of years now and had just finished an on-ice session together in December when Sandin phoned for an interview. He spoke of seeing the benefits of increased strength just days before flying to Toronto for training camp, noting that Nylander had recently broken a stick in frustration after they competed in a battle drill: “Even William can’t even handle me on the ice right now.”

His goals heading into 2021 were clear.

“Play all the games I can and make a bigger impact on the team this year -- try to help the team win more games,” said Sandin.

Even though the games proved difficult to come by, he’s still ended up here in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the chance to make a difference.

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