TORONTO – William Nylander stood on the postgame podium with a twinkle in his eye and a cut underneath.
As he spoke about the jolt the Toronto Maple Leafs received from the first near-capacity Scotiabank Arena crowd since March 2020, the wide grin that held up his mustache was a refreshing and symbolic sight.
On Opening Night, Nylander, now fully vaccinated, became the last Leaf to shed the mask in his interviews and the first Leaf since. King tiger to shoot a game winner in front of city fans.
Jumping the boards in transition, Nylander flew his wing 66 seconds into the third period, froze Montreal Canadiens goalkeeper Jake Allen, hesitating on his release, then tossed the puck over Allen’s left shoulder and cleaned under the bar. .
“It just happened,” Nylander said, ignoring his elegant aim.
“Clutch goal,” praised head coach Sheldon Keefe after the 2-1 victory. “That’s what you need when you have an opportunity like that from one of your best players. Obviously, you hope it can capitalize. He did just that.
“It was a great transfer between him and Mitch [Marner]. Mitch had a lot of poise and he stuck to the record, he organized us, and Willy was right. As soon as you hit the ice, you’re ready to go. “
Putting his vaccination aside to last, Nylander, 25, has burst in ready. The Maple Leafs’ best forward in a disappointing postseason hasn’t missed a beat this summer.
With Auston Matthews (wrist) and Ilya Mikheyev (thumb) injured, Nylander’s future center John Tavares has come up to play with Marner and Nick Ritchie.
This has abruptly left Nylander with a second makeshift unit with the Alexander Kerfoot knife and the new Leaf Michael Bunting. However, it was that trio that dominated more turns than any other. Thanks, in large part, to Nylander.
How is this for a sloping stat line on Wednesday? When Nylander was on the ice, 75 percent of shot attempts went to the Montreal net, and the Leafs held a 6-0 lead in high-danger opportunities. He recorded five shots on goal, threw a hit, blocked a shot, stole four pucks, the game’s high, and threw a superb 4-of-4 Toronto penalty shot.
The goal was one thing; the indentation in Nylander’s right cheekbone indicated energetic effort.
“Will was good in a lot of other areas as well,” Keefe said. “So it’s a very positive sign for him and for us.”
Intending to skate as a duo for most of this season, Nylander and Tavares challenged each other over the summer to hit full blast into September.
Remarkably, then, No. 88 was the first player to hit the ice for day 1 of training camp, and he was often among the last to leave. (One afternoon, we watched Nylander patiently feed Mikheyev batch after batch of single shots as the Russian worked to improve his shot.)
“He really wants to take on a more leadership role and make that presence felt in the room,” Tavares said of the only Core Four forward without a letter.
“He just feels that responsibility. It’s time he took charge of some of those things and wanted to get involved in a lot more, whether it’s off the ice or on the ice with the consistency that is needed on a daily basis.”
Matthews has already picked up an intensified focus and greater determination in the soft-skating Swede.
“He’s a huge part of this team,” Matthews said. “When he’s on, he’s an amazing player.”
Nylander has always been confident. Certainly a bottomless wardrobe from Prada and Balenciaga fits, and the right-curved shelf stamped with “WILLY STYLES” on the shaft accentuates it.
But in his seventh year with the big club, Nylander is taking even more of his podium.
He credits Tavares and his father, Michael of the 920-game NHLer, as role models in that regard.
“I wanted to become a little bit more of a leader on the team,” Nylander said. “As I got a little older, I learned a few things and maybe [myself] more in that role. I mean, I’m not trying to do anything special. Talk a little more and say what I think. “
What Keefe thinks is that your game should lead the way. Voice means nothing without action.
“It’s hard to be a leader if you’re constantly trying to find your game and have an impact,” says Keefe. “But he found another level last season and during the playoffs.
“He was a lot more vocal on that show than he’s been, and he’s carried some of that forward.”
Fox Fast Five
• Sign of the times: A few hundred tickets to the Maple Leafs’ home opener went unsold. Announced attendance: 18,493.
• Surprisingly, the Maple Leafs have improved to 24-13-2 without Matthews in the lineup.
• I loved the look on Jonathan Drouin’s face when he scored the Canadiens’ first goal of the season. He is back.
• The Canadiens edged the Leafs 6-0 when the Toronto fourth row of Mike Amadio, Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds were on the ice. That trio didn’t make a single attempt to match the force.
• When I’m older, I want to be able to flex like Penny Oleksiak: