His team was caving in the 32nd-ranked Montreal Canadiens. Auston Matthews had scored 36 seconds in. A rambunctious Bell Centre was quieting by the shift. The deadline-depleted and injury-riddled Habs had hardly sniffed the puck.
Then, halfway through the second period, stay-at-home defenceman David Savard activated from the point, blew past a lackadaisical Nylander untouched, drove the crease and converted a pretty cross-ice feed from Laurent Dauphin.
The strike tied a game that had no business being tied and injected life into a faithful fan base looking for a reason to cheer on a mathematically eliminated bunch that just won’t quit.
Nylander recognized the gaffe for what it was: lack of effort.
“I had a mistake on the backcheck. Didn’t backcheck all the way,” Nylander owned, following Saturday’s 4-2 loss. “That’s a big factor. I gotta be there to stop the momentum.”
Coach Sheldon Keefe treated the blunder as a last straw. He split Nylander from second-line centre John Tavares, a combination that has continually and confoundingly failed to equal its $17 million worth of parts.
“It’s tough,” Keefe said of the Nylander’s missed assignment. “I mean, defensively, I don’t know if we can play much better than that. Just how we controlled play, how we controlled the neutral zone — not a lot happening. That’s a tough one to give up.
“But, to me, that was the third or fourth play like that for Will. And that’s why it was time [to split Nylander and Tavares]. Things have been piling up for that line for a while. So, it was overdue.”
In general, is Keefe satisfied with Nylander’s play of late?
“No. Not close,” the coach replied.
Another follow-up question was shot down.
“I don’t need to pile on Will here,” Keefe said. “He knows what makes him great, and he knows what he needs to get back to.”
The very foundation of the Maple Leafs’ success is built on a one-two offensive punch from the Core Four. Yet when Tavares and Nylander share ice at even-strength, the Maple Leafs have been outscored 45-36 this season.
Chemistry is on hold on Line 2, and time is running out to find it.
It’s a perplexing truth when you consider the elite individuals involved, and an issue that has been masked by a dominant power play and one of the most frightening top lines in hockey.
Keefe argued that his middle-six had more pop once he demoted Nylander alongside checking centre David Kämpf and elevated speedster Ilya Mikheyev.
“He was on top of the puck today. He was really skating,” Keefe said. “So, it made it easier for me to make that switch of the line, get him up with John.”
This isn’t the first time Keefe has called out Nylander publicly, nor the first time the winger has been demoted in Montreal.
It’s no secret his engagement level fluctuates like the price of unleaded.
As Matthews once memorably said of his teammate: “When he’s going, he’s going.”
Last time Keefe’s Leafs rolled through Montreal, the cellar-dwelling Canadiens rolled right over them.
“Those are always games you keep in the back of your head,” Matthews said prior to the rematch. “We didn’t come out with much of a purpose that game, and they had a lot of fun. We get another crack at them here.”
While Toronto’s crack was worlds more forceful this time, the result was the same: two important points left unclaimed against a cellar dweller playing for pride only.
“They are a team that’s playing with a lot of confidence,” Jason Spezza said. “Marty [St. Louis] has got them playing free hockey. They check hard now. Those are dangerous teams to play against.”
The Leafs woke up in second place in Atlantic Division. They fell asleep in fourth.
Small mistakes matter.
Thing is, the Leafs outshot Montreal 51-18, dishing the Habs their worst shot differential (minus-33) at home in franchise history.
They played well enough to win, but Jake Allen was superb, and the Canadiens hung around long enough to seize on a few errors.
“I’ll take that game 82 times,” Keefe said.
Matthews kept his pursuit of 50 humming in the first shift, wiring his NHL-best 47th goal. Wingmen Mitch Marner (70 points) and Michael Bunting (50 points) collected benchmark stats with assists on the sequence.
“I didn’t come in this year thinking I’d be producing like this. I just really wanted to help this team. Individual success is a good thing, too. So, I’m happy with my season. I just kinda hope I can keep it rolling,” said Bunting, unsure why the bulk of his points have arrived away from Scotiabank Arena.
“It’s funny. My dad actually texted me, saying, ‘Oh, you’re going back on the road. That’s good.’ ”
Building on momentum from the Savard goal, Cole Caufield sniped a beauty on the power play, giving the home side the lead. The barn erupted about as loud as one can when it houses the first club to be eliminated from the postseason.
That’s not a dig. That’s a compliment to a city smart enough to recognize a reset and still turn out in rowdy droves to appreciate a strong effort on a Saturday night.
The Leafs stuck with it, and — guess who? — Nylander knotted the game 2-2 with a power-play strike of his own.
That’s the thing: Nylander is tracking a career-best 75 points, yet he’s a minus-13 on a plus-39 club. (Tavares is dash-9.)
Halfway through the third, as tensions swelled and the Leafs controlled play, the Bell Centre ripped into The Wave.
Partying like they already knew what was coming.
Paul Byron played the hero role, looking pass but sniping the winner five-hole on a broken play that resulted in an odd-man rush. Christian Dvorak tacked on an empty-netter.
Sometimes, winning the night can be satisfaction enough.
“It’s one of the best places to play the NHL,” Keefe said. “If you’re on the road, it’s an incredible environment, great atmosphere. Coming in with the Leafs, even more so.”
Indeed, the atmosphere was electric.
The Leafs should hope for the same Sunday as they host the mighty Florida Panthers in the second half of this back-to-back.
Petr Mrazek starts in net for Toronto.
We’ll be watching to see which line Nylander starts on.
Fox’s Fast 5
• Kyle Dubas inked prospect Nick Abruzzese to his two-year entry-level deal Saturday. Next up: Get Matthew Knies to commit.
The playmaker Abruzzese, 22, was a point per game for Team USA at the Olympics and recorded 33 points in 28 games as a sophomore with Harvard this season. Dubas has been saving a roster spot to give him an NHL peek in April.
“He’s a really, really good hockey player. He’s got dynamic skills. Super good with the puck. He’s got an elite brain, and he’s a really good offensive player,” says fellow Harvard man Alexander Kerfoot.
“The other thing you notice is just his hunger. He wants to get better. He wants to be the best player on the ice every night.”
• Liljegren is getting time on the second power-play unit, but Keefe says the two-defencemen formation is more about having security when the two minutes drains and 5-on-5 play resumes. If PP2 hops the boards with plenty of time 5-on-4, the coach will still roll four forwards.
• “O Canada” was sung in French, English and Cree — a trilingual, one-anthem game.
• Injury roundup: Ondrej Kase has yet to skate with the club since taking a blow to the head from Matt Duchene on March 19 in Nashville. “There’s no real update,” Keefe said. “In fact, I haven’t even heard much on him other than he’s not going to be available this week.”
Jack Campbell (rib) has been ramping up his workload. The No. 1 goalie will travel with the Leafs to Boston Tuesday and could be available Thursday versus Winnipeg at the earliest. If not, bet on the first week of April.
Rasmus Sandin (knee) has begun working out in the gym but has not been on the ice. He’s still weeks away. “His spirit is pretty good. He’s been unlucky this year with injuries,” says friend Timothy Liljegren. “He always brings a smile to the rink. He’ll get through it.”
• Quote of the Day.
“He’s very calm, cool, and collected. Shelly doesn’t show a lot of emotion, which I think is good for a goaltender — especially in Toronto.” —Michael Bunting on Erik Källgren