‘That goal was for Borje’: Nylander’s fitting tribute keeps Maple Leafs afloat

John Tavares had a pair of assists, Mitch Marner scored the opening goal to keep his 15-game point streak going, and the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Minnesota Wild 4-3.

Forty-eight hours after pulling out a gutsy win to slow the red-hot New Jersey Devils in Newark — ducking a volley of chucked beer cans in the process — the Toronto Maple Leafs weathered another storm on the road Friday, outlasting the Minnesota Wild to earn their 12th win of the campaign.

As has been the case on the regular this season, the big question heading into the tilt was how the Leafs’ blue line would hold up in the wake of yet another injury, with Jordie Benn joining the growing group of ailing defenders last game.

But once again, Sheldon Keefe’s group managed to adapt and survive, snagging one more for the win column despite rolling out a defence corps led by 39-year-old Mark Giordano alongside Justin Holl, with young Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren behind them, and a wild-card third pair of Victor Mete and Mac Hollowell.

It wasn’t necessarily a cakewalk, though.

While Minnesota didn’t go the volume-shooting route against Toronto, they weren’t short on chances that had the Leafs’ faithful’s hearts pounding. And for much of those sequences, Toronto’s blue line looked out of sorts, the group finding themselves scrambling more than a few times throughout the game, as the Wild cycled around them.

Minnesota’s first goal was as clear an example of that as any — just a mess of a play on a Wild man advantage that saw the puck bouncing back and forth at the net front and through the crease before landing on Kirill Kaprizov’s stick. He won’t miss many of those, and he didn’t this time.

The impact of losing your top three defenders perhaps showed up most on the Wild’s second of the night, though — a tough sequence for Mete, who surely could’ve done more on Minnesota’s cross-ice pass, which ended up passing him by unencumbered and landing on Matt Boldy’s stick for a one-time snipe.

Minnesota’s third goal was just as unsteady a defensive showing. With the Wild working a 6-on-5 late in the final period with their netminder pulled, Holl was beaten to the puck behind the net, kicking off the Wild’s cycle. By the time the puck came back into No. 3’s orbit, it was as a rebound flying by him to a wide-open Mats Zuccarello, who had so much space to operate, there was no question he was going to finish.

Still, those lapses aside, the group managed to hold on and see it through. Holl finished the night as the blue line’s minutes leader with 23:46 — he’s led in ice times in both games since Morgan Rielly went down with injury — just ahead of Mark Giordano’s 23:06, while Sandin and Liljegren both topped 20 minutes on the night as well. That said, the performance doesn’t do a whole lot to answer the question of whether this group can hold on for multiple games until Toronto’s injury list is cleared.

MURRAY HOLDS THE FORT

While all the focus has been on how the defence is holding up, though, if there’s a reason the Maple Leafs have continued to collect wins even after their blue line has been decimated by injury — with Rielly, Benn, TJ Brodie and Jake Muzzin all on the shelf at the moment — it’s Matt Murray.

He wasn’t flawless in this one, and he wasn’t asked to make an astounding number of stops, but as he has before, Murray proved he can step up and make the big saves when his club needs them most.

On this night, the first wave of those came during a crucially important third-period power play for the Wild, with Toronto holding onto a one-goal lead. After already starting that final period with a lengthy offensive-zone shift, the Wild were buzzing. Taking that momentum into the man-advantage, they peppered Murray with a string of high-quality looks, knocking at the door, trying to get back to level ground.

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A few clutch saves from Murray held them off, though, and a couple of good shorthanded chances from the Leafs soon after quelled that spurt of momentum.

In the game’s final seconds, there was Minnesota once again pushing hard for a tying goal, and there was Murray again. By this point, Minny had already sniped once in the final stretch, and again it seemed they were building towards a tying goal — in the final seconds, they nearly had it, as a Sandin-Liljegren giveaway gifted Kaprizov with a one-time chance at point-blank range with just seconds to go.

Murray’s there, the puck stays out, the Leafs win. Can’t ask for much more than that.

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MARNER KEEPS ROLLING

While these Leafs navigate the tumult of an offence that still hasn’t fully hit its stride, a blue line marred by injuries, and a road trip that’s already seen cans flung at their heads, the club’s one constant has been Mitch Marner putting points on the board night in and night out.

It was much the same Friday night, as Marner set the tone early with a surprising goal to kick off the scoring, wiring one in from way out. He’s now collected at least a point in 15 straight games — putting up 20 points in total over that stretch — for a career-best run of production.

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That it’s come as Auston Matthews has yet to fully find his offensive rhythm, and as other key offensive pieces, like Rielly, have been knocked out of the lineup, can’t be understated. Even more impressive is how Marner’s two-way game is feeding that offence, much like we saw last game against Jersey, when No. 16 stole the puck deep in the o-zone, held off three Devils, and set up John Tavares for the game’s opening tally.

Which leads to another key aspect of this scoring run — after sniping the game’s first goal against the Wild, Marner’s now factored into his team’s opening goal for five straight tilts.

He’s yet to be held off the board this month, and now sits just three games of production off of tying the franchise-record streak (Darryl Sittler and Eddie Olczyk each having strung together 18-point heaters). In the grand scheme of things, it means little, but amid a 2022-23 season that’s been more of a rollercoaster than these Leafs would like, that steady production is a good sign.

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“FOR BORJE”

While much of the chatter surrounding these Leafs has focused on that run from Marner, that uneven start from Matthews, or the captain’s resurgent play, William Nylander has quietly rolled along at a point-per-game pace through the first quarter of the season, sitting just a goal off Tavares for the team lead.

He’s picked up right where he left off last season — a career-best 80-point effort — and finds himself on pace for a 40-goal, 80-point campaign.

Nylander added to his totals Friday with a clutch third-period goal, collecting the puck from Michael Bunting late in the third and whipping a no-doubter by Marc-Andre Fleury to stretch his team’s lead to 4-2. It proved essential, as Zuccarello’s late goal turned Nylander’s snipe into the eventual game-winner.

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More importantly, though, it wound up as a fitting tribute to the man the Maple Leafs honoured on their jerseys Friday — with his goal against Minnesota, Nylander tied the late Borje Salming for the second-most goals scored by a Swedish Maple Leafs player.

Salming, the former Maple Leafs defenceman, and all-time club legend, passed away Thursday at the age of 71 after a battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Said Nylander after the game, when asked about that connection: “That goal was for Borje.”

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