TORONTO — William Nylander has been under the microscope of late for his poor production and recent third period benching, but on Wednesday he got to play hero for the Maple Leafs, scoring once in regulation and potting the overtime winner in a 2-1 victory over the Calgary Flames.
“It's always been around me with that kind of [criticism], so I'm kind of used to it,” Nylander said of negative headlines surrounding his season to date. “But I know I've under-underperformed, and I know I can do better. I've got levels to get to where I want to be.”
It was just four days ago that Nylander was benched for the final 8:45 of the third period in Toronto’s 5-3 victory over Montreal, a decision head coach Sheldon Keefe made at the time because the Leafs had “really got it going the way we wanted to [in the third], and I didn’t think Willy matched that.”
If the winger’s defensive play was lacking on that particular night, his offensive production was lagging behind long before. Prior to Wednesday’s two-goal output, which marked his first multi-goal outing since Toronto’s season opener against the Canadiens, Nylander had tallied just one goal and one assist in his previous nine games and appeared on the scoresheet in just eight of the Leafs’ first 20 tilts.
In response to Keefe holding him out on Saturday, Nylander tried picking up his play and it didn’t go unnoticed by teammates or the coaching staff.
“He’s an incredible player,” said Zach Hyman. “I think people don’t realize how much he cares and how much he wants to win. To see him be the hero tonight, it’s just great. You don't do the things that he does away from the rink if you don't care and you don't love the game and you don't want to get better and you want to help your team win. He just gets misunderstood a lot of the time.”
While Keefe doesn’t disagree on that front, he also puts some of the onus on Nylander to put his best foot forward more often.
“I thought the last couple games he’s had real good legs, he’s been skating well with the puck,” said Keefe. “It felt like he was waiting to break out. Is he misunderstood? I think Willy has to own some of that. He’s got to find more consistency in his game. He’s got to be engaged and good without the puck. Part of it is perhaps being misunderstood, part of it is that he’s still got to grow as a player.”
For one night at least, Nylander went back to showing off that elite skill set Toronto sorely needed.
After Calgary topped the Leafs 3-0 in Monday’s first meeting, the Leafs were once again struggling to score in Wednesday’s rematch. The game was still tied 0-0 well into the third period, when Andrew Mangiapane fired the night’s opening salvo past Michael Hutchinson with 3:27 remaining in regulation.
Staring down another potential shutout loss, Toronto turned up the heat on Calgary. At that point, Flames’ goaltender David Rittich had shut out the Leafs for a total of 118:32, and it was with Toronto’s 71st shot on goal over that two-night stretch that Nylander finally broke through, stuffing a puck under Rittich from a scramble in his crease to tie the game 1-1 with 1:28 left in the third.
In overtime, Nylander came over the boards with Auston Matthews and Justin Holl and wasted no time ripping a top-shelf strike on Rittich to give the Leafs a 2-1 victory.
It was the type of storybook ending for Nylander he’d been looking for all season, and especially in the wake of his recent benching and subsequent criticism of his play.
“I don't really read or anything [the media] writes most of the time, but I try to put my work in as as good as I can every day at the rink and try to battle,” Nylander said. “Coming off a couple tough games myself, I want to get back to where I can be.”
Going forward, Nylander believes there is even more he can offer, starting with where he sends pucks.
“First of all, I’ve got to get some shots to the net,” he said jokingly. “I think I've had like one or two shots a game that have been really good shots, so that's one aspect. And then moving my feet with and without the puck a lot more.”
Whatever noise there’s been on the outside about Nylander’s season to date, the players sharing a dressing room with him are quick to defend the winger as an invaluable asset to their success. And as Toronto continues dealing with injuries to Joe Thornton (lower body) and Wayne Simmonds (wrist) up front, the Leafs will need Nylander to stay hot as they head out west for three meeting against the Oilers.
“He's very, very underrated with how strong he is on the puck,” said John Tavares. “He wants to be a difference maker. He is such a big part of our hockey team and our locker room [with] his personality and his drive to be a great player. It's awesome to see him get two big ones tonight, it's very uplifting for him and the type of player he wants to be. He wants to be big in those types of moments.”