Tavares, Nylander’s dominant reunion breathes life into Maple Leafs’ offence

William Nylander had two goals and two assists and John Tavares added a goal and an assist against his former team as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the New York Islanders 5-2.

TORONTO — When it’s all clicking as it’s supposed to, this is what an elite offence looks like. This is how it’s supposed to operate.

Not just dominant, not just hard to contain, but versatile, bold and resilient.

Rewind the tape, roll through these Toronto Maple Leafs’ greatest moments from the past couple seasons, and the formula for most blue-and-white wins has been clear: one or both of Nos. 34 and 16 running wild, and everyone else hanging on until the final whistle. But midway through this 2022-23 season, the blueprint has a different look. That burden of carrying Toronto’s offensive hopes has been lifted off the leading duo’s shoulders, spread more evenly among the whole core four.

And on a Monday night at Scotiabank Arena that saw these Leafs come out stumbling and walk away laughing, William Nylander showed the Maple Leafs faithful what that looks like.

“Terrific,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said of Nylander after the 5-2 win over the New York Islanders, an apt one-word summary of a night that saw No. 88 lead his club with a flat-out dominant four-point performance. “Willy’s been excellent, and he was excellent today.”

“It’s the way he’s been playing all year,” added John Tavares. “He continues to get better and better. Obviously, he’s an unbelievable player, and when he gets the puck on his stick, he can make so much happen. He’s so unpredictable, his ability to finish plays and his soft touch and poise, obviously his skating ability creates separation.

“He continues to be a catalyst for us.”

On this night, the Maple Leafs were desperate for one.

Twenty minutes into Toronto’s tilt against the Islanders, Keefe’s club looked dead in the water. Down a goal, being doubled in the shots department, and searching for signs of life in the building after a sleepy period punctuated mostly by Islanders chances, the Maple Leafs returned to the locker room in search of answers.

“No life, no energy, no pace, no execution,” Keefe said of the opening period that had his club down 1-0. “In the first intermission, we had a chance to regroup. I don’t think a lot had to be said, other than pointing out the obvious. It’s on the players — they did the talking, and more importantly, they came out on the ice way more focused.”

They came out with a different look, too, Keefe opting for Plan B and reuniting Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, moving Nylander to Tavares’ trio.

“We had to change something — well, many things,” Keefe said. “But that was probably the biggest change. And it was noticeable right from that first shift — Mitch and Auston, what they brought to that first shift, life and energy. And then obviously John and Will, those guys connected as well, and things just started coming together for us.”

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That’s putting it mildly. His squad came out flying from the second period’s opening puck drop, Matthews and Marner finding dangerous looks on their first shift, tilting the ice back in their direction. But it was Tavares’ early fire in the second that pulled his club back.

Frustrated after his first trip over the boards in that middle frame — slamming the bench door shut after a shift that saw him and his linemates looking out of sync — Tavares returned to the ice for his next go and took over. The captain grabbed the puck and went hard to the net, causing chaos but coming up short. A moment later, he did it again, this time faking out the opposition and dishing a backhand to a waiting Nylander, who made no mistake.

The Islanders answered with a goal of their own. But Tavares and his Leafs kept coming, tying the game once again within a few minutes.

This time it was Ilya Samsonov with the setup, the netminder surprising everyone on both benches with a heads-up rocket of a pass down the ice while the Islanders were changing, which Nylander collected and shuffled on to a breaking Tavares.

By the time the game had reached its midpoint, Keefe’s squad had taken the lead, levelled the shot totals, and grabbed hold of the momentum.

The captain’s line facilitated two more goals before the period was through, Nylander doing his best Samsonov impression with a flip-pass setup for Calle Jarnkrok, and then bagging one himself after intercepting an Islanders clearing attempt.

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“JT was excellent in that second period,” Keefe said of his captain, whose eight shots during the 20-minute stretch rank as the most he’s ever amassed in any period during his 14-year career. “I just thought he made plays. He was hard on the puck, he was winning battles, he was getting in behind their defence. The goal he scored was great, but there were a number of sequences where he just came out with the puck or held onto the puck.

“There were a number of different sequences that he either creates or keeps alive just through moving his feet, winning a battle, protecting the puck — all the things that he does at an elite level all came together in that period.”

In its best form, this is how it works. Anyone who’s tuned in to a Maple Leafs game knows the danger Matthews and Marner can create when they’re paired together. The logic of keeping them apart to spread the offensive wealth is clear. Monday’s comeback win, though, showed another piece of that decision’s value — that it turns the Matthews-Marner reunion, and the Nylander-Tavares reunion, into a tool Keefe can call on when its needed most.

In this one, it was, the change unleashing every bit of progress shown from Nylander and Taveres this season, both of whom have looked like the most lethal offensive versions of themselves so far.

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What impressed Keefe most about that overpowering second period, though, wasn’t the offensive outburst from his top six, but the fact that his group took it upon themselves to regroup and go again.

“In that moment, the guys know that that was not a good period,” he said of that first intermission. “You’re hoping that your team’s going to say the right things and be focused and in the right mindset. I don’t feel I need to go in there and say much other than pointing out the obvious and putting the game onto them. They need to respond.

“For us to flip the game like that, it takes a significant effort. The players have to be in the right frame of mind to be able to do that. I was really, really impressed with our team’s ability to bounce back and flip the game like that.”

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