TORONTO – William Nylander stood at the post-game podium with a glint in his eye and a cut underneath it.
As he spoke about the jolt the Toronto Maple Leafs were given from the first near-capacity Scotiabank Arena crowd since March 2020, the broad smile holding up his moustache was a refreshing and symbolic sight.
On Opening Night, the now fully-vaccinated Nylander became the final Leaf to ditch the mask in his interviews and the first Leaf since Tiger King to snipe a game-winner before hometown fans.
Hopping the boards in transition, Nylander blew down his wing 66 seconds into the third period, froze Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jake Allen with hesitation on his release, then whipped the puck high over Allen’s left shoulder and clean under the bar.
“Just happened,” Nylander said, shrugging off his stylish goal.
“Clutch goal,” head coach Sheldon Keefe praised, following the 2-1 win. “That’s what you need when you get a chance like that from one of your best players. You’re obviously expecting him to be able to capitalize. He did just that.
“It was a great handoff there between he and Mitch [Marner]. Mitch had a lot of poise and hang on to the puck, get us organized, and Willy was right on the ball. As soon as he hits the ice, he’s ready to go.”
His down-to-the-wire vaccination aside, Nylander, 25, has barged in ready. The best Maple Leafs forward of a disappointing post-season hasn’t missed a beat over the summer.
This has abruptly left Nylander with a cobbled-together second unit featuring utility knife Alexander Kerfoot and new Leaf Michael Bunting. Yet, it was that trio dominating more shifts than any other. Thanks, in large part, to Nylander.
How’s this for a tilted stat line Wednesday? When Nylander was on the ice, 75 per cent of shot attempts were directed at Montreal’s net, and the Leafs held a 6-0 edge in high-danger chances. He registered five shots on goal, threw a hit, blocked a shot, stole a game-high four pucks, and pitched in on Toronto’s excellent 4-for-4 penalty kill.
The goal was one thing; the gouge on Nylander’s right cheekbone spoke to a fleshed-out effort.
“Will was good in a lot of other areas as well,” Keefe said. “So, it’s a very positive sign for him and us.”
Intended to skate as a duo the bulk of this season, Nylander and Tavares challenged each other over the summer to come into September running on all cylinders.
So, it was notable No. 88 was the first player to step on the ice for Day 1 of training camp — and that he was frequently among the last to leave. (One afternoon, we watched Nylander patiently feed Mikheyev batch after batch of one-timers as the Russian worked to improve his shot.)
“He really wants to take on more of a leadership role and make that presence felt amongst the room,” Tavares said of the only Core Four forward without a letter.
“He just feels that responsibility. It’s time for him to take ownership of some of those things and wanting to be involved in a lot more, whether it’s off the ice or on the ice just with the consistency that’s needed on a daily basis.”
Matthews has already picked up on an intensified focus and increased determination in the smooth-skating Swede.
“He’s a big part of this team,” Matthews said. “When he’s on, he’s an incredible player.”
Nylander has always carried himself with an air of assuredness. Certainly, a bottomless wardrobe of Prada and Balenciaga fits, and the rack of right curves stamped with “WILLY STYLES” on the shaft accentuates that.
But in Year 7 with the big club, Nylander is owning his podium even more.
He credits Tavares and his father, 920-game NHLer Michael, as role models in that regard.
“I wanted to become a little bit more of a leader on the team,” Nylander said. “As I’ve gotten a little bit older, I’ve learned a few things and maybe thrown [myself] more into that role. I mean, I’m not trying to do anything special. Talk a little bit more and say what I think.”
What Keefe thinks is that your play must lead the way. The voice means nothing without the action.
“It’s hard to be a leader if you’re trying to find your game and make an impact consistently,” Keefe says. “But he found another level last season and through the playoffs.
“He was a lot more vocal in that series than he’s been — and he’s carried some of that forward.”
Fox’s Fast Five
• Sign of the times: A few hundred tickets for the Maple Leafs’ home opener went unsold. Announced attendance: 18,493.
• Remarkably, the Maple Leafs have improved to 24-13-2 without Matthews in the lineup.
• Loved the look on Jonathan Drouin’s face when he scored the first Canadiens’ first goal of the season. He’s back.
• When I grow up, I want to be able to flex like Penny Oleksiak: