Maple Leafs’ Nylander moves closer to superstardom with five-point night in win

William Nylander had a 5 point night, scoring twice and adding three assists while Mitch Marner extended his point streak to 22 games and scored the overtime winner as the Toronto Maple Leafs doused the Calgary Flames in the extra frame, winning 5-4.

TORONTO — When it comes to William Nylander, Sheldon Keefe doesn’t need to use the stick nearly as much as he used to. Hardly at all this season, actually.

“He’s maturing,” the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach said following Saturday’s 5-4 overtime victory over the Calgary Flames. “Over time, you get sick of having the coach in your ear all the time, and you want to get that sorted out yourself.”

Internal accountability is a major reason why Leafs fans have gradually witnessed this growth of Nylander from wildly inconsistent to simply wildly entertaining.

And on this night — “a bit of an ugly one,” according to 22-game point streaker Mitch Marner — Nylander was the most dependable element among a back-and-forth, penalty-filled mess.

The Calgary-born star sniped twice and helped set up three more. He fired five shots on net and factored in all five Leafs goals for his most productive night in the NHL.

“Strong on his feet. Controlling the puck. Doing a lot of cutbacks. As soon as he’s feeling it, he’s hard to stop out there,” said Marner, riding high off his OT winner. “He’s a lot of fun to watch, a lot of fun to have on your team. He was a difference-maker tonight, for sure.”

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Nylander was handed the player-of-the-game belt for his efforts. Surprisingly, it was his first time receiving the honour, despite registering at least a point in 23 of Toronto’s 29 games and shedding his rep as the Core Four’s wild card.

“It’s nice. It’s heavy,” Nylander smiled. “The puck was going in.”

It’s done been going in.

“He’s buzzin’,” Auston Matthews said. “Just all over it.”

Nylander’s 17 goals lead the Leafs.

He’s on pace for 48 goals and 93 points — which would crush last year’s personal bests of 34 and 80. (P.S. Like Auston Matthews, Nylander too is eligible to re-sign this summer.)

“Look. You just want to do better than the year before. Always trying to get better. Whatever that number ends up being, I’m not worried about it now,” Nylander said.

“I’m just focused on skating. That’s the most important thing for me. It’s helping me create space and get chances out there.”

What’s most remarkable about Nylander, 26, stacking a career year on top of a career year is that those around him believe there is still headroom between that glorious blond flow and his ceiling.

“He’s got a long ways to go still in terms of what his potential is and what he can do. You’re seeing that,” Keefe explained.

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Nylander made a conscious effort to take on a leadership role last season. And this season, with the Big 4 forwards all within five goals and seven points of one another, there is some healthy internal competition brewing.

And with those superstars responsible for two-thirds of all Leafs goals since Nov. 1, well, the team benefits in the end.

Saturday, with Marner, Matthews and Nylander each creating highlight moments en route to multi-point efforts, you saw it play out in real-time.

Like Method Man passing the microphone to Ghostface Killah to Raekwon the Chef. Longtime friends who don’t mind out-shining each other from time to time.

And the audience wins.

“Our top guys are pushing each other,” Keefe said.

“Willy has the potential to be in that top tier. Auston and Mitch have really established themselves in the exclusive top tier of the league. Willy should be right there, hanging with those guys. He’s pushing himself, and they’re all pushing each other, which is how that group can get to greater heights.”

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During Toronto’s remarkable 14-game run with a point, opposing coaches have frequently pointed to elite game-breakers and solid goaltending as the source.

“With Toronto — and I saw it last year — their top players, those guys have taken another whole level in terms of their leadership. They’re by-example type players. It’s so evident when you watch them,” Flames coach Darryl Sutter said.

“They’re the best team in the league right now.”

Matt Murray had arguably his worse outing as a Leaf, and Nylander & Co. made a rare subpar showing by the goaltender a non-story.

“He’s just a stud. He’s incredibly gifted. He works hard,” Murray said. “He seems to win a ton of 50/50 battles. That goes to his strength and his athleticism and his dedication to win those battles. He gets a lot of second pucks, second chances.

“He’s basically the reason we get two points. Heckuva player.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• We had to do a double take when Keefe looked down his bench of superstars and instead chose checking centre David Kämpf plus defencmen Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin to start 3-on-3 overtime.

“I figured Sandin would be the most likely to take (a) stick in the face,” Keefe deadpanned.

Keefe wanted to “shock the system” after six straight OT losses with a move out of left field.

It worked.

Marner’s power-play OT winner occurred after Jonathan Huberdeau high-sticked Sandin three seconds into the extra frame.

“It’s no secret that things haven’t gone well for us in overtime. We’ve tried everything in terms of mixing and matching our top four guys, and it hasn’t gone well,” Keefe said.

“Reality is, we’ve lost to some teams that have taken a more conservative approach off the start.”

• Milan Lucic was healthy scratched for the first time in nearly a decade.

How come?

“Because we put the little guy in and took the big guy out,” Flames coach Darryl Sutter said, in reference to AHL-scoring leader Matthew Phillips. “Can only dress 12.”

• Toronto is taking a wait-and-see approach to Nick Robertson’s shoulder recovery. No immediate surgery. He’ll pour himself into rehab over the next six to eight weeks, at which point doctors will re-evaluate.

In the meantime, callup Joey Anderson gets his shot.

He drew two key penalties in his season debut and topped all skaters Saturday with a 77.8 per cent Corsi-for percentage at even strength.

“Very encouraging game for him,” Keefe said. “It’s time to give him a little runway here to see what he can do.”

• World junior camps have opened. A notable player not invited to play for Team USA: OHL leading scorer and Maple Leafs 2021 fifth-rounder Ty Voit.

The Pittsburgh native’s elite playmaking is fueling the Sarnia Sting this season. Voit has piled up 40 assists and 49 points through 28 games. Still, the Americans made like Voit’s linemates and took a pass.

• Stay strong, Chris Snow — and family.

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