Count your blessings. ’Tis the season for it.
William Nylander had a stocking stuffed with them going into the Christmas break — 20 goals, tops on the Leafs.
And, to keep those bells jingling, the overtime winner over St. Louis on Tuesday — four minutes and three seconds into extra time: Picked Vladimir Tarasenko’s pocket at the Leafs’ blue line, cranked up the rocket boosters straight down the ice, forehand-backhand-up-and-over Jordan Binnington. Thereby giving Toronto their third OT win of the season and averting a third straight road loss.
A good time to sing Willy’s praises. Because he’s having a yowza year.
Yet asked where he considered himself most blessed skill-wise — skating, ice-vision, soft hands, offensive creativity — the 26-year-old was momentarily stumped. “Good question. Hard to answer.’’ (Similarly baffled when queried about whether, as a Calgary-born Scandinavian, he dreams in Swedish or English. “I’ll have to sleep on that and get back to you.’’)
After some consideration, however, Nylander posits that skating is his most natural talent. Not just the smooth gliding but his abrupt speed, demonstrated of late in multiple breakaways through and beyond the opposition defence.
“Just growing up, I’ve been skating like that all my life.’’
Also a genetic gift from dad Michael Nylander no doubt.
Where Nylander the Younger gets his serene character from though is open to debate. Endlessly mellow, doesn’t matter if he’s rolling hotsy-totsy or getting benched for disengagement and defensive enervation — admittedly not a criticism that has been much levelled at him this season.
“I just think that’s how it needs to be, regardless if you’re playing amazing or going through a tough time. You’ve always got to keep that even keel.’’
Some coaches have wanted to strangle him for those tendencies of recurring on-ice sloth since debuting in Toronto as a 19-year-old. But what’s the point of cutting off Nylander’s nose to spite the team’s face? He doesn’t respond to scolding or tough love. He is what he is. And right now, through the campaign thus far, he’s been an offence glitterati, particularly since permanently affixed to the first line, amassing 39 points, same as Auston Matthews, the two tied for second in team tally, a tick behind Mitch Marner, entering Tuesday night’s encounter with the rather woebegone Blues in St. Louis.
Courses for horses, and this palomino (as in blond) has been kicking up his hoofs, on pace for a career-high 48 goals and 94 points. He reached No. 20 in last Thursday’s pre-break matinee victory over Philadelphia, his goal the winner – on a 3-point afternoon — in what turned into a close 4-3 encounter. Last season, Nylander didn’t reach the 20-goal mark until Feb. 26.
“Obviously it feels pretty good,’’ he’d understated. “Just got to keep going, keep shooting.’’
Three shots on this night and made the third one count against Binnington, who’s having a weirdly bipolar season — dizzying high and low streaks, month to month.
Just three minutes after puck drop, Binnington was fishing the first puck out of his net off the stick of Justin Holl, who scored on one knee, making good use of his right-handed shot below the hash marks, pouncing on the rebound from Mark Giordano’s wrister that rang off the iron and with Matthews providing a screen. Most impressive was how the Leafs controlled play on the cycle, passing the puck around with authority, Nylander to Giordano with the secondary assist. They’ve somehow morphed from rush team to cycling chops, generating scoring opportunities with industrious work in the O-zone.
In fact, out of the chute the Leafs evidenced no rust, legs sprightly under them and in a rhythm groove. St. Louis answered back though, winning a puck battle behind the Toronto net and taking advantage of a sudden swing in thrust resulting from a pass that never made it through the neutral zone, caroming back off a skate. Ilya Samsonov for some reason lost his footing, had no chance on a revenge-goal shot by ex-Leaf Calle Rosen. So, Leaf D 1; Blues D 1.
Samsonov, who’d ruefully noted that he’d given up “Christmas presents’’ in his past two starts got this assignment over Matt Murray because coach Sheldon Keefe wanted to get him back between the pipes pronto. “He hasn’t been happy with his starts the last couple of times out.’’
Working in sharp unison, the Toronto PK held St. Louis to just one shot in their only man advantage chance before John Tavares restored the visitors’ one-goal edge, beating Binnington under the glove with less than a minute left in the period.
The aggressive Leaf penalty kill orchestrated Toronto’s fourth short-handed goal of the season, Alex Kerfoot the beneficiary of stalwart corner spadework by Calle Jarnkrok with a gimme backhanded tap-in. Kerfoot was himself in the box, however, when the Blues, after drawing within on again on a goal by Ryan O’Reilly, made it two under two minutes, Justin Faulk victimizing Samsonov — playing too deep in the net — with the PPG, 3-3.
St. Louis woebegone? Get me rewrite.
Two-goal lead squandered, Leafs reasserted themselves shortly thereafter on the immediate heels of a flat power play, Jarnkrok stre-e-etching long to pop the puck over Binnington’s pad, finishing off a yeoman effort by Pontus Holmberg to create the scramble. At that juncture, Toronto’s bottom-6 had racked up six points.
St. Louis, showing their tenacious side, levelled it again 4-4, perfect shot up and over Samsonov by Jordan Kyrou, setting the stage for Nylander’s heroics, just when it felt like Toronto’s first shootout of the season was imminent. A thoroughly entertaining game, too – including a missed penalty shot by TJ Brodie, of all people. Though Keefe might have some whinges nevertheless, notably an OT penalty that wasn’t called (should have been four-minute felony, actually.)
In other matters Leaf, Keefe continued to hold Dryden Hunt — acquired eight days earlier from the Colorado Avalanche in a trade for Denis Malgin — out of the lineup, giving him even more time to acclimate to his new team. Which seems an awful lot of accustoming for a likely fourth liner.
“It was a tough call because we want to get him in, get him involved,’’ Keefe said. “At the same time, we don’t necessarily see a reason to disrupt the lineup.’’ Or, for the moment at least, prise Joey Anderson from that fourth unit, where he’s fit reasonably well since being called up from the Marlies in early December.
“Throughout the rest of the lineup, we’re happy with the guys there.’’
Keefe was heartened to see both Rasmus Sandin and Morgan Rielly on the ice for the skate, albeit kept away from the drilling fray. Rielly has been on the injury shelf (knee) since an awkward collision with New York Islanders forward Kyle Palmieri on Nov. 21; Sandin (neck) was mandated to miss the Tuesday game after being placed on injured reserve retroactive to Dec. 20.
“It’s great,’’ said Keefe. “Both guys look like they’re doing well and moving well. It’s a step for them today. I expect to see them both in practice (Wednesday) and then make a determination for the remainder of the trip from there.’’
A trip that takes the Leafs through a swath of the Central Division, Phoenix on Thursday and Denver on New Year’s Eve.
So far, so good.
Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno
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