MONTREAL — There’s always been a love-hate relationship among fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs and William Nylander.
His pure skill was always undeniable but critics of his play always went back to his defensive responsibilities or miscues that led to goals against.
On Monday, Nylander scored his third playoff goal of the season to help his Leafs edge the Montreal Canadiens 2-1 as take their first lead in the best-of-seven series. But his play away from the puck is what has really stood out.
“To me he’s just competing a lot harder,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He playing a nice complete game and it’s obviously huge for us.”
One particular shift stood out for Keefe. With his team pinned in their own zone in the third period, Nylander and Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher were battling for a loose puck along the side boards. Nylander used his feel to strip Gallagher from gaining the upper hand by. In turn, he managed to get the puck to Alex Kerfoot that set up a 2-on-1 scoring chance for Toronto.
“We love seeing Willy play like this,” Leafs goalie Jack Campbell said. “This is the Willy we know. He’s a dominant player when he’s on his game.
“He’s such a special player and he’s bringing it. I think he’s getting the boys going and other guys are stepping up. And ultimately and everyone is doing the best they can and Willy’s leading.”
Nylander has had to adjust to new lines in all three games against the Canadiens.
A horrific injury to Leafs captain John Tavares in Game 1 brought the addition of Alex Galchenyuk. Nick Foligno moved from the wing to center for Game 2. On Monday, Foligno was scratched after the warmups with a lower-body injury and Alex Kerfoot moved up to fill that void.
Nylander has been the one constant on the line and it has helped the Leafs persevere through arguably their most difficult stretch of injuries this season.
“Willy is no question a dynamic player and somebody who brings a ton to our team,” teammate Zach Hyman said before the game. “When Willy’s playing his game he’s one of the best players in the world so it’s great to see.”
In four previous trips to the postseason, Nylander scored a total of five goals in 25 games. All of those trips ended in disappointment with opening-round exits.
“You learn over the years and every time you lose it digs even harder,” Nylander said. “You want to battle and battle and get better every year.”
Earlier in the season, Hyman said that Nylander was “often misunderstood” for his play. On Feb. 20, Keefe benched Nylander for an extended stretch of the third period in one of eight visits to Bell Centre this season.
At the time he said Nylander’s compete level didn’t match the rest of the group.
During this playoff series, Nylander has been asked by the coaching staff to give more.
So far he has delivered that and has been a major factor why his team has the lead in the series going into Game 4.
Kerfoot provides support up the middle
With Foligno out, Kerfoot moved from the third line to skate up the middle with Galchenyuk and Nylander. The transition was smooth, perhaps aided by the time he played in the same role when Auston Matthews was injured earlier in the season.
“That’s what Kerf’s done all year long,” Wayne Simmonds said. “He’s moved up and down the lineup and every time he’s asked to play a bigger role he does it.”
Kerfoot was also key in helping the team kill penalties, particularly early on when Galchenyuk received a double-minor penalty for high-sticking Gallagher.
Campbell’s big third period
The Leafs went into the final frame with a 2-1 lead and Montreal finally brought some pressure after struggling to get quality scoring changes from in close.
“Of course, our goalie was our best player,” Keefe said.
14 of Campbell’s 27 saves came in the final frame.
With Game 4 set for Tuesday, Keefe said he’ll see “how Jack feels” following Monday’s game before making a decision on his starter.
Foligno missed the Game with a lower-body injury. After missing the team’s morning skate, Keefe initially said that Foligno would play. Clearly, the team had a plan in case the forward couldn’t go.
Riley Nash took the warmup in addition to Foligno before the game. Nash’s absence from the extras work following the morning skate was the first sign that Foligno’s status for the game was in doubt.
“He thought he was going to be ok but just getting on the ice he didn’t feel like he’d be able to get through it,” Keefe said of Foligno. “Ultimately just thought he’d be hurting the team so (we) made the decision to give him the night off and get Nash in.”
Missed opportunities for Montreal and the Carey Price factor
As wild as the the third period was for Toronto to defend, the Leafs’ play against the Canadiens before the last 20 minutes was heavily one-side in favour of Toronto.
The Canadiens failed to register a shot-on-goal in the four minute power-play they had early in the game when Galchenyuk high-sticked Gallagher. At even strength, the Leafs continued a relentless attack only to be met by Carey Price.
The Canadiens’ starting goaltender made an unbelievable paddle save on Jason Spezza in the first period.
Despite allowing both of his goal in the second period, Price made 18 saves in the second period. The game could have easily been a blowout had it not been for the established playoff performer.