Marner gets his flowers, Nylander dominates as Maple Leafs edge Flames in OT

William Nylander and Mitch Marner powered the Maple Leafs past the Flames on Saturday. (Photo by Michael Chisholm/NHLI via Getty Images)

TORONTO — Mitch Marner is finally receiving all the flowers he’s richly deserved throughout his career with the Toronto Maple Leafs and on a night where he was honoured by the Scotiabank Arena crowd, he delivered in full measure once again, notching the overtime winner in a 5-4 victory over the Calgary Flames.

Marner extended his franchise-best point streak to 22 games on William Nylander’s first goal in the first period, earning a raucous standing ovation from the crowd.

Nylander was buzzing all over the ice, notching two goals and three assists in a career game for the Maple Leafs, while Auston Matthews and Michael Bunting added a goal each. Noah Hanifin scored twice for the Flames, while Nazem Kadri and Trevor Lewis also got on the board for the Flames in the losing effort.

Toronto has now recorded at least one point in 14 consecutive games.

Here are four takeaways from Saturday’s Leafs-Flames game

Mitch Marner is finally getting the flowers he’s earned from Maple Leafs fans

It may be because he cares viscerally about every move the Maple Leafs make, the club he’s admired since he was a young boy in the suburbs of Toronto, but Marner has often been the undue receptacle of all the heartbreak, anger and dejection that the fan base has encountered over the past decade, to say nothing of the 55-year title drought. Marner was harassed by teenagers in a Toronto park prior to signing a contract extension, and when the team fails to meet the astronomical expectations placed upon it, the 25-year-old often takes a verbal lashing from the fans, and he feels every part of it.

Marner is now on a 22-game point streak and a fan base that will viciously turn on you in an instant is now giving the dynamic playmaker all the love he’s wanted and deserved for the duration of his career. Upon registering a secondary assist on Nylander’s first-period goal, Scotiabank Arena erupted into a standing ovation when Marner’s name was called.

“Like I’ve been saying, the fans have been giving me a lot of love recently,” Marner said post-game. “Very thankful for it, very appreciative of it. It’s a special feeling. This fan base is always loud for our whole team, really. It’s a pretty special feeling.”

Marner has registered 30 points during the 22-game run, the third-longest streak by any active player, trailing only Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby. He’s unquestionably one of the best players in the NHL. And though the fans can often be cruel, particularly towards Marner and his playoff production, he’s getting a long-overdue hero’s reception.

William Nylander’s dominant effort led the Maple Leafs to victory

If this edition of Hockey Night in Canada invited a number of homecomings, it’s only fitting Nylander put the Maple Leafs on his back with a career-high five-point performance against his boyhood club. Nylander, in tandem with Auston Matthews, were the Maple Leafs’ best players as they constantly flummoxed the Flames’ defense. Nylander used the outside lanes particularly well, while Matthews forced his way into prime scoring locations all night. Without this pairing — which was briefly separated during the second period — the Maple Leafs would be going home irate, losing in a contest where they were the better team for the majority of the game.

“It was good. Controlling the puck, being strong on his feet, doing a lot of cutbacks. Really good at controlling the puck. Since he’s been feeling it, he’s hard to stop out there,” Marner said post-game of Nylander’s performance.

This was no one’s idea of a classic game but Nylander was the best player on the ice by some distance during his five-point night and it’s clear to those around him that he should be viewed among the very best players in the NHL. You can’t give him any space at all, the Flames played him far too passively on the power play and Nylander punished them.

Nylander’s second goal had an element of luck as he got into a prime scoring location, then wired a shot that hit Calgary’s Chris Tanev in the shoulder before finding a way in. It was more than just a lucky night, though. Nylander straight up dominated at 5-on-5, posting a 66.6 Corsi and an 84.82 percent share of the expected goals, per Natural Stat Trick.

“Auston and Mitch have really established themselves in the exclusive top tier of the league. Willy should be right there, hanging with those guys,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said post-game.

Flames head coach Darryl Sutter said Saturday morning that he believes the Maple Leafs are currently the best team in the league, while praising the play of Matthews, Marner, Nylander and John Tavares. Devils and Bruins fans may balk at this distinction, but the Leafs have been a wagon lately and their past failures shouldn’t be a measuring point of what this club ought to be at its best.

Nylander is on pace for a 48-goal campaign, which would shatter his career high of 34 set last year. He only wants to beat last year’s target. If Nylander continues to score at this rate, the Maple Leafs are as good as Sutter thinks they are.

We’ve expended a lot of words on how good Nylander was Saturday but Maple Leafs goaltender Matt Murray said it best post-game.

“He's just a stud."

Rasmus Sandin continues to elevate his game amid injuries on Toronto’s blue line

It wasn’t how the plan was drawn up at the start of the season but a rash of injuries to Toronto’s blue line threatened to sink another Maple Leafs season. Necessity is often the mother of invention and barring a trade for a star defender — it was merely a few weeks ago when a Jakob Chychrun trade was viewed as the only real solution – the Maple Leafs would need one of their existing members to step up. Rasmus Sandin has not only met the challenge but he’s also seamlessly made up the offensive void created by Morgan Rielly’s injury.

Keefe appears to trust Sandin inherently, starting him and Timothy Liljegren on the back end for the opening shift. Sandin notched two assists and was particularly effective on the power play, manning the blue line with timely anticipation and a calm playmaking presence. Sandin was the lone defenceman on Toronto’s first power-play unit, and was on the ice when Bunting tied the game at four apiece, walking the blue line when Matthews’ shot caromed off the boards, right onto Bunting’s path in front of goal.

Sandin also drew a penalty three seconds into the overtime period, getting high-sticked by Jonathan Huberdeau. He is getting quality minutes in all situations and doesn’t look out of place. This is a major win for a regime that hasn’t always graduated players to the NHL at the rate it’s expected to.

“I think you can tell the fact that he’s played more, he’s in more of a groove and the injuries, you have less options so you just put him out there," Keefe said. "And he’s growing on the fly. He’s figuring things out. He’s being relied upon, I think he’s done a nice job.

“Everybody thinks playing the power play is great and easy and all that. It’s not easy, it’s a challenge, especially playing a team like this, they put a lot of pressure on you, they love to score on the penalty kill. It’s a stressful situation to make those decisions and make those plays and execute at a high level at key times. I think those experiences are helping him grow and there’s no doubt that he’s found a different level in his game here versus where he was at earlier in the season, not unlike a lot of our team that has really turned the corner in the last month.”

Sandin is just 22 years old and he’s still a few years away from his prime, a tantalizing prospect for his teammates to consider.

“For guys to come up through the organization is big,” Maple Leafs defenceman Mark Giordano said Saturday morning of the Sandin-Liljegren pairing. “You can see they’re first-rounders for a reason. You can see that skill, you can see the poise they have with the puck and they’re going to keep getting better and better.

It wasn’t a perfect game. Sandin and Liljegren were both caught sleepwalking, staring at Andrew Mangiapane when Kadri placed a seeing-eye shot past Murray in the second period. But other than this sequence, we’re nitpicking.

In the 10 games Rielly has been out of the lineup, Sandin has stepped up with two goals and seven points, while logging increased minutes against higher-calibre opposition across the board.

A rare rough night for Matt Murray

Murray has been exceptional for the Maple Leafs. No one, with the exception of Kyle Dubas and his staff, saw it coming. This was the biggest gamble the Maple Leafs undertook this season and it has paid dividends, as Murray and Ilya Samsonov have allowed Toronto to stay within arm’s length of Boston for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. Murray is allowed to have an off night every now and then, and he had arguably his worst start of the season Saturday.

Marner may have turned the puck over here to start the sequence, but Murray has to be better. After Mikael Backlund rung a shot off the crossbar, Murray got back into position, but Lewis swiped aimlessly from the wall and beat Toronto’s goalie from an impossible angle. It was a grotesque goal, and the fourth one was much worse.

Hanifin put together his first multi-goal game since 2018 and it wasn’t pretty. Hanifin beat Murray from another terrible angle as the puck trickled through his legs. Murray thought the whistle was blown and said the referee provided him with an explanation, although he didn’t disclose the reasoning to reporters post-game.

We’re not going to belabour the point. Murray was awful, but he still got the W. And given that Murray and Samsonov stole a number of games for the Maple Leafs when the sky briefly appeared to be falling, he’s earned a pass, as the entire team gets a day off Sunday.

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