MONTREAL – William Nylander appears to have found an extra gear for the playoffs.
Nylander scored the game’s first goal as the Maple Leafs beat the Montreal Canadiens 2-1 on Monday night, to take a 2-1 lead in the best of seven Stanley Cup opening round series.
Nylander has scored in all three games.
“He’s a dominant player when he’s on his game and we need that from him,” said goalie Jack Campbell. “He’s such a special player. He’s bringing it. He’s getting the boys going and other guys are stepping up and up. Everybody’s doing the best they can and Willie is leading it.”
Morgan Rielly scored the winner after Nick Suzuki tied the game with all the scoring coming in the second period. Campbell, who had a light workload for the first 40 minutes, held the Canadiens at bay in the third, ultimately outduelling Carey Price over 60 minutes.
It all means the Leafs are halfway to winning a playoff series for the first time since 2004, with Game 4 Tuesday night, again in the Bell Centre. Those first-round playoff losses that have haunted the Leafs in recent years seems to have motivated Nylander.
“I mean the (playoff) games are harder,” said Nylander. “You learn over the years and every time you lose things get even harder. So we want to battle and battle and get better every year.”
The Leafs won without Nick Foligno, a late scratch for an undisclosed reason.
“He didn’t feel like he’d be able to get through (the game) and then ultimately thought he’d be hurting the team,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “We made the decision to give him the night off. He’s day-to-day.”
More to the point, Nylander has produced offence in each game playing with a different centre: John Tavares, Foligno and for Game 3, mostly Alex Kerfoot.
“I’ve played with Kerfoot a lot before, so that wasn’t a big deal,” said Nylander. “We know where we are out on the ice and we play the system we want to play.”
Nylander has had his polarizing moments in Toronto, sometimes for his contract, sometimes for a non-chalance towards defence. Until now, Nylander’s personality has mostly shown through his hair styles. But lately, his post-game quotes are almost as good as his in-game performances. It’s unusual because Nylander is not usually one to run up his quotient of quotable quotes. He doesn’t seek the spotlight in that way, usually happy to offer up “get pucks deep” level comments.
But when asked early in the series about where Rasmus Sandin gets his confidence, he answered “from me.” The reasoning – when pressed — was that they live together, and Nylander figured some of his personality was rubbing off.
It was a good line for a player not known for good lines. Pressed then on Monday, after his third goal in three games, he was asked where his confidence came from: “Born that way” was his off-the-cuff comment that drew some laughs.
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But it’s what Nylander’s doing on the ice that matters, and against Montreal, he’s been terrific.
“He’s competing a lot harder,” Keefe said of Nylander. “He’s really engaged. With that, offence comes. Obviously he’s scored huge goals. But I think I was most impressed with him in the third period.”
That’s when Montreal was pressing for the equalizer and Nylander showed off some defensive acumen in getting the puck and clearing the zone.
“He’s playing a real nice complete game,” said Keefe. “It’s obviously huge for us. You look at losing Tavares and then you lose Foligno, two guys that started out with him on his line and he’s just continuing on, and produced and playing hard and giving us real good shifts.”
While the Leafs dominated play for most of the game, both in offensive possession time and shots, they had themselves to blame — namely a meek power play — for letting Montreal hang around. The Leafs went 0-for-5 with the extra man, though Montreal’s was just as feeble (0-for-4 including no shots on a four-minute power play early in the game).
Fans in the stands
There weren’t many, about 250, but the Canadiens invited some fans to take in the game in private boxes. One of the boxes was dubbed the “Hero’s box” for health care workers who have helped this province through the pandemic. On Friday, Quebec is expected to lift its curfews and other lockdown measures, and will allow paying fans into games. That means about 2,500 fans — about 12 per cent of capacity — can take in Game 6 on Saturday, if the series goes that far.
For the second game in a row, the Leafs started Simmonds for the opening draw. He played the first 30 seconds or so with Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman, in a peace-keeper role, let’s say, given Montreal’s physicality.
Asked why he did it for Game 2, Keefe said: “Just Wayne’s ability to forecheck and be a presence to start the game. Really as simple as that.”
War of attrition
If nothing else, the playoffs are already proving to be a war of attrition. Both teams claim to have depth, and both teams have had to dig into it, meaning game-by-game roster changes and in-game challenges for coaches trying to figure out line combinations on the fly.
So when it’s all said and done, it could all come to down to which general manager provided his coach with the enough players to get through the first round.
The Leafs lost Tavares (concussion, knee) after Game 1 and Foligno (lower body) didn’t dress for Game 3.
The injury situation was just as dire for Montreal coach Dominique Ducharme, who lost Jake Evans (undisclosed) in Game 1, Eric Staal after Game 2, and Artturi Lehkonen (head) early in Game 3. Uber-hyped rookie Cole Caufield saw his first playoff action, suiting up for Staal (lower body).
Kevin McGran is a Star sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @kevin_mcgran
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