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Nylander laughs off drought as drive to 100 points stalls

William Nylander William Nylander - Getty Images

The Toronto Maple Leafs practised at Ford Performance Centre in Toronto on Friday.

William Nylander is going through the longest goal drought of his season. 

"I mean, f—k I don't know how many games it's been since I scored," the Leafs winger said. "It doesn't matter for me. What's coming up is the biggest part. But, as a player, you're always striving to be better, so you're not just happy with what you've done. You just want to do better."

It's been eight games since Nylander last scored on March 26 in a 6-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils. He has just two assists in that stretch. 

"I'm just happy that the chances are there," he said. "Obviously frustrated that they're not going in, but gotta look at it positively so you don't get too mad."

Nylander hasn't gone this long without a goal since a six game dry spell in January. 

Before Friday's practice, the 27-year-old Swede did a solo skills session with Dr. Hayley Wickenheiser, who is the team's assistant general manager, player development. 

"Today I was just shooting, you know, getting pucks off, getting that aspect going," he said. 

Nylander came away empty despite firing five shots on net during Thursday's loss to the Devils. At one point, he slammed his stick on the boards after missing out on an opportunity.

Nylander is stuck on 40 goals, which matches his career high set last season. More notably, he's stalled on 96 points with just three regular season games remaining. Only three players in franchise history – Darryl Sittler, Doug Gilmour and Auston Matthews – have recorded 100 points in a season. 

"I think it's frustrating," Nylander acknowledged of the drought. "Part of it, obviously it affects you in some way, but you just try and get out of it by working hard and working on what you need to get back going again."

Nylander would have picked up an assist on Thursday, but a Nick Robertson goal was wiped out by an offside challenge. On Tuesday, Nylander had a goal taken away due to goalie interference.  

"Sometimes you just gotta laugh about it," he said of his poor luck lately. "It is what it is."

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Nylander currently finds himself skating on the third line with Pontus Holmberg and Robertson as the Leafs experiment with a spread-offence attack. 

"I have liked it," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "In the last couple of games, I have started to work towards getting Willy extra shifts and moving him around a little bit. That was always part of the plan, too. Early on, I wanted to give the lines time to really get going and gain traction."

The second line features John Tavares between Bobby McMann and Mitch Marner. On the top line, Auston Matthews is flanked by Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi

Nylander ended up playing nearly four minutes with Marner and Tavares during Thursday's loss. 

"I see lots of potential in it," said Keefe of the loaded-up line. "I wanted to get them some reps. I see it as something I can move to through a game when it is hard to really get rhythm with three lines. I think it is a way to simplify it a little bit and get those guys out there."

Shot attempts favoured the Leafs 14-1 when Nylander, Tavares and Marner shared the ice in 5-on-5 play, per 

"The thing that made us successful last night when we were together is we weren't really complicating things too much," Marner said. "We were still doing a lot of the little things right, you know, making sure someone was around the net, getting second-opportunities around the net. We had our looks, but unfortunately none of them dropped."

Marner's played three games since returning from a 12-game injury absence. 

"I feel like I'm getting my legs under me now and confidence back," he said.

ContentId(1.2103462): Keefe sees 'lots of potential' in a Marner, Nylander, Tavares line


The door for Keefe to load up his second line opened after Domi was assessed 17 penalty minutes – a minor for instigating a fight, five for fighting and a 10-minute misconduct – midway through the second period. Domi confronted Simon Nemec after the Devils defenceman mixed it up with Matthews along the boards. 

"The corner of my eye I just saw Auston and whoever the other guy on Jersey was battling and wasn't a fan of that so went over," Domi explained after the game. 

"That's what he's all about," said Matthews. "He's a team-first guy and he's always going to stick up for his teammates. I didn't think he had to do that, but obviously he felt the need to and I'm always appreciative of guys standing up for one another and myself as well."

Domi is eighth in the NHL in penalty minutes (116). He's dropped the gloves a career-high six times this season.

"Max is all about the team and is responding to a situation he felt needed to be addressed," said Keefe. "You love that about him."

Marner played junior hockey with Domi. Was he always this feisty? 

"He was worse maybe," Marner recalled with a grin. "Maybe. Doms scared the s—t out of me when I was in London, to be honest, when I was rookie."

What happened? 

"It was something in training camp my very first season," Marner said. "Someone was messing around there with Doms a little too much and you screw around and you find out sometimes."

But Domi's in-your-face style does come with a cost. The 29-year-old missed Friday's practice. 

"He has an injury that is a day-to-day situation," said Keefe. "We just kept him off the ice today. We will see how he is tomorrow."

There's a chance Domi plays on Saturday, Keefe added.

ContentId(1.2103468): Domi fights for Matthews: 'He scared the s--- out of me when I was in London'


Toronto's top line is on fire right now and Domi is a big reason why. 

"Probably one of the most underrated passers in the league," said Matthews. "He can thread seams."

Domi set up both Matthews goals on Thursday.  

"Our chemistry's grown more and more each game," Matthews said. 

Domi's 36 assists in 5-on-5 play this season ranks fifth overall.

Matthews and Domi have started the last 12 games together. Matthews has 13 goals and nine assists in this stretch since March 20 while Domi has one goal and 11 assists. Bertuzzi, who missed one game due to illness, has seven goals and three assists.  

"We're just three hungry guys that want to win," Domi said. "When we're playing well, the three of us are hounding the puck and throwing a lot of energy at them and kind of just smothering them, and then making plays when the time is right."

The top-line chemistry has helped Matthews surge down the stretch. He's up to 68 goals and has a chance to become the first player to hit 70 since Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny in 1992-93. 

"It's remarkable what he's doing," said Tavares. "I think there's no question about it, he's doing something truly special so just appreciate it every night."

"He is rewriting the record books," said Keefe. "There are a lot of Leafs fans who, in their lifetime, haven't seen that many goals in the NHL."

The pair of tallies on Thursday moved Matthews past the legendary Dave Keon and into sole possession of third place on the all time franchise goals list. 

"Nice to hear those things," Matthews said. "But our season's not done yet and obviously we're trying to build towards the post-season, so that's where the main focus is. I think these kinds of things are nice to reflect on for a little while, but obviously there's a bigger goal in mind and so that's kind of where my head's at."

Matthews, who has scored 367 goals in 559 career games, seems to be a man on a mission. 

"The way he himself has continued to play hard, lead the way for us, and embrace his line and his linemates has been great," said Keefe.

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Goaltender Ilya Samsonov allowed six goals on just 20 shots in Thursday's loss. 

"Tough game," he said. "But we play in the best league in the world and sometimes we have a good day, sometimes bad. Most important, how your reaction for this and today is new day. Everybody smile, working hard and tomorrow is new game against team who is fighting for playoffs."

Samsonov had not allowed six goals in a game since Dec. 29, which was his last appearance before being placed on waivers amid an ugly start to the season. 

"We clearly hung him out to dry early in the hockey game, so we don't give him much of an opportunity to be in this game," Keefe stressed. "We'll move on as a team. We need him to move on as well. He has been outstanding for us, and he will be outstanding next time out."

Samsonov will start again on Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings. Keefe noted that was the plan all along. 

"I think a big part of where Sammy is at and where he has been in the last few months — or whatever it has been — is his mental approach," said Keefe. "That has armed him with the tools to manage the situation he was in earlier in the season to get to this point. Those are the same things that are going to prepare him and should give him the confidence to push past it and get right back to it."

Samsonov did not take part in Friday's main team practice, but worked on a separate pad with goalie coach Curtis Sanford. 

"Not a lot of sleep last night, just a couple hours, but excited to come here," he said. "We do some goalie ice with Curtis and get some treatment and more like recovery day, and get some recharge. Recharge a little bit."

Samsonov revealed he only gets a couple of hours of sleep after most games. 

"All the time for goalies, I think, not just me," he said. "You sleep bad after the game."

Prior to Thursday's loss, Samsonov had been red hot with 18-4-1 record and .913 save percentage since being recalled in January. 

"I can't remember the number, but it caught my eye how few regulation losses he has had this season," said Keefe. "It is pretty remarkable the opportunities to win he has given us this season. He will rinse this one pretty quickly."

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Defenceman Timothy Liljegren practised with the Leafs for the first time since suffering an upper-body injury on March 26. He skated on the top pair beside Morgan Rielly

"He looked good to me," said Keefe. "I haven't gotten the reports on him, but he looked good. He went into the practice with the intention of pushing himself with an eye toward tomorrow. That is the goal. We will see where he is at tomorrow."

When Liljegren returns, the Leafs will have all nine of their defencemen available. Joel Edmundson returned from an eight-game absence on Thursday. 

"A little out of it the first, so slower than everyone else, just the decisions, but after the first intermission, I kinda calmed down and felt good," said Edmundson. 

"He was okay for a guy who hadn't played in a while," Keefe said. "It is going to be important that we use the remaining games to build him back up."

Edmundson, who got hurt when he blocked a shot off his foot on March 24, took another painful puck to the leg early in Thursday's game. 

"It seems like pucks are a bit of a magnet to his feet," Keefe said. "But that is a credit to how he plays and a credit to him for stepping right in and putting himself in harm's way once again. It is the type of guy he is."

The 6-foot 5 defenceman was tied for the team-high with three blocked shots against the Devils. 

"Obviously missing a few weeks there, I just wanna get back up to speed and get that physicality back and those plays, the timing, and just everything," he said. "I just wanna get my game back to where it was. I thought I was playing good hockey before I got injured, so I've got a few games to do it."

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The parents and sisters of Rodion Amirov attended Thursday's game and received a warm reception from the fans when shown on the video board in the first period. 

"It was something that was in the works for a while," said Keefe. "It was quite the moment. Rodion's time here made an impact on our group."

Amirov was drafted in the first round, 15th overall, by the Leafs in 2020. The Ufa Salavat Yulayev forward was diagnosed with a brain tumour early in 2022 and passed away last August at the age of 21. 

"The story is extremely sad," said Keefe. "The family should be coming here to watch their son play in the NHL here in Toronto. It is clearly an emotional time. I really felt for the family. At the same time, it is terrific to have them here. I am glad that they had that moment and the fans recognized it."

Amirov's mom wiped away tears as fans cheered. Players on both teams tapped their sticks. 

"It was very emotional for me on the bench," Marner said. "I got to know him quite well. He was an awesome, awesome kid and obviously had a very, very bright future in this organization and in the hockey world."

The 2020 draft was held virtually because of the COVID pandemic. Marner announced Toronto's pick while Rielly held up a jersey with the No. 20 and Amirov's name. 

"I was fortunate enough to be the one to announce his name," Marner said. "Mo and I were the ones there to bring him into this organization. I tried to keep in touch with him as much as possible. He was an awesome, awesome kid and that was a very emotional thing for me last to see his family there. For the crowd to give that reaction and the love they deserve, it was pretty special."

Amirov visited Toronto at the start of last season and was introduced as part of the home opener. Samsonov, a fellow Russian, took Amirov under his wing and toured him around.

"He's really nice guy," Samsonov said quietly. "I know his problem, everybody knows his problem, but this guy makes some smile every day. It doesn't matter what's going on. One month before he passed away, like, we just call him and he said, 'Man, everything is good. I feel better.' This probably mostly positive guy I've seen in my life." 

The Amirov family also attended Friday's practice.

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Lines at Friday's practice: 

Bertuzzi - Matthews - Gregor
McMann - Tavares - Marner 
Robertson - Holmberg - Nylander 
Knies - Kampf - Reaves 

Rielly - Liljegren 
Benoit - McCabe 
Edmundson - Brodie 
Giordano - Timmins 


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