'Misunderstood' Nylander ties game late, scores winner as Leafs beat Flames 2-1 in OT

·6 min read

TORONTO — William Nylander is used to the outside noise swirling around him in hockey's biggest market.

And he knows some of the criticism is justified.

Breathtakingly skilled, Nylander can make the absurd look easy one moment, and appear disinterested and disengaged the next.

The Maple Leafs' enigmatic winger demonstrated what he's capable of Wednesday with two goals that couldn't have been more different.

Nylander tied the game late in regulation on a chaotic scramble in tight before adding the winner on a graceful drive to the net at 1:06 into overtime as Toronto defeated the Calgary Flames 2-1.

"Nice to be able to score," he said. "Finally."

It's certainly been an interesting week for the 24-year-old, who was recently called out on the front page of one of the city's daily newspapers before getting benched in the third period of his team's 5-3 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday.

"It's kind of always been around me," the soft-spoken Nylander said of the heat he takes in some circles. "I know I've underperformed and I know I can do better. I've got levels to get to where I want to be."

Leafs forward Zach Hyman said he wishes people on the outside got to see the work his much-maligned teammate puts in away from the fans and cameras.

"You don't do the things he does away from the rink, and when people don't watch, if you don't care and you don't love the game and you don't want to get better, you don't want to help your team win," Hyman said. "He gets misunderstood a lot of the time.

"Guys in the locker room know how much he cares."

Michael Hutchinson stopped 21 shots for North Division-leading Toronto (15-4-2) in his second consecutive start in place of the injured Frederik Andersen, who remains out with a lower-body ailment. Auston Matthews added two assists as the Leafs ground out a result in a game that didn't have any scoring through 56 minutes.

Andrew Mangiapane replied for Calgary (9-9-2), which had lost four of its last five in regulation before Monday's 3-0 victory at Scotiabank Arena in the opener of this two-game set. David Rittich made 37 saves in his second straight start in place of injured No. 1 goalie Jacob Markstrom (upper-body, day-to-day).

"Lots of positive things (with) what we did in those two games," Rittich said. "That's a good thing."

Nylander took a pass from Matthews in the extra period and beat the Flames goaltender upstairs after quick move to the forehand for his seventh of the season as the Leafs spilled over the boards to celebrate.

"Why is he misunderstood?" Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said of the No. 8 pick in the 2014 draft. "Willy has to own some of that. He's got to find more consistency in his game. He and I have talked a lot about those kinds of things. He's got to be engaged and good without the puck.

"Part of it, perhaps, is being misunderstood, but part of it is he's still gotta grow as a player."

Mangiapane finally snapped a 0-0 tie with 3:27 left in the third period when he took a pass from Matthew Tkachuk behind the net and beat Hutchinson for his seventh.

Rittich, who made 34 saves for his first victory of the season Monday in Toronto, had made 70 straight stops against the Leafs, but Nylander jammed home his sixth with 1:28 remaining to force OT.

"We've learned a lot early in the season and the importance of sticking with it," Leafs captain John Tavares said. "Eventually with the type of depth that we have, our opportunities will come."

Next up for the Flames is four in a row against the Ottawa Senators, including three straight in the nation's capital, starting Thursday. The Leafs, meanwhile, open a five-game road trip Saturday in Edmonton with the first of three against Oilers before two more versus the Vancouver Canucks.

Apart from missing Andersen, Toronto was without first-line winger Joe Thornton (lower body) and top-4 defenceman Jake Muzzin (facial fracture) for the second consecutive game. Both players continue to be listed as day-to-day, while backup goalie Jack Campbell (leg) and forward Wayne Simmonds (wrist) remain on injured reserve.

Hyman returned after taking a shot off the foot Saturday, slotting into Thornton's spot on the top line with Matthews and Mitch Marner to start the game. Hyman also spent some time with the Leafs' stars earlier in the schedule when Thornton missed 10 contests with a rib fracture.

Toronto's power play, which remained tied for first in the NHL entering Wednesday despite going 0 for 7 in that shutout loss to Calgary, got a chance seven minutes into the third after a disjointed 0-for-3 performance in the first, but still couldn't get anything going with Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander loaded up on the top unit.

Rittich continued to shut the door, including a nice stop with Alexander Barabanov in alone with under five to go in the third before the teams traded late goals.

"He gave us a chance to win both hockey games," Flames head coach Geoff Ward said. "He played so well."

Tavares had a great chance to open the scoring in the second off a pass from Matthews, but Rittich made a terrific right-pad save at full stretch.

Toronto, which hadn't been shut out this season before Monday, got another opportunity on a 2-on-1 break shorthanded later in the period only to see the Calgary netminder rob the snake-bitten Ilya Mikheyev.

Rittich then shut the five-hole on Matthews, who crashed into the end boards after a shove from Rasmus Andersson and subsequently had his right wrist taped by a trainer.

Keefe said the injury was definitely bothering his No. 1 centre, but added it's something the NHL goal leader has been dealing with most of the season.

Nylander and Matthews were actually the second pair of forwards over the boards in overtime — Keefe usually starts with Marner and Matthews — because the latter didn't feel like he could take the faceoff.

Nylander took a subsequent draw alongside Matthews in the defensive zone on the next shift before securing the win with his deft touch.

"People get on him a lot," Hyman said. "He's an incredible player, and I think that people don't realize how much he cares and how much he wants to win. To see him be the hero ... it's just great.

"Really happy for him."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2021.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press