By DAVID SHOALTS
Friday, December 7, 2018
Several hours before the opening faceoff on Thursday night, Auston Matthews said he and his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates were excited about the prospect of finally seeing William Nylander back in action.
"He's kind of given everybody a lift," Matthews said. "I think everybody's excited to put the whole thing in the past and move on."
Well, anyone who wandered into the Leafs' arena during the first two periods and saw their listless play against the Detroit Red Wings would have sworn they were all moping about the 45 million bucks Nylander scooped up when his contract impasse finally ended last week.
But the Leafs let their excitement show in the third period when they scored three goals in 8 minutes 58 seconds to tie the score, only to lose 5-4 in overtime when Dylan Larkin scored on a breakaway.
By then, Nylander had been benched for the last 11:37 of the third period as head coach Mike Babcock cut back to three lines to wake up his teams. The Leafs also had to survive a shot from the point that hit both posts behind goaltender Garret Sparks and bounced out with nine seconds left in the third period to get to overtime.
Before that third period, though, there was little sign of enthusiasm, save from Nylander's close friend Kasperi Kapanen.
And Kapanen had to concede his spot as Matthews's right wing when Nylander returned to take up his usual position.
But Kapanen was one of the few Leafs who was skating, as he performed well with centre Nazem Kadri and left winger Andreas Johnsson on the third line.
The rest of the Leafs? Not so much, although they came to life in time to force overtime before seeing their NHL winning streak end at five games.
Another problem was the absence of No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen. He was given the night off to prepare for Saturday's big game in Boston.
But Sparks was so-so at best until overtime. He let in at least two goals that should have been stopped and never came close to keeping the Leafs in the game until they found their legs. Not that they ever really did.
There was a sign the hockey gods may have thought things were going a little too well for the Leafs.
On the way home after Tuesday's big comeback overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres, the team bus broke down. This cost a couple of hours in travel time and forced head coach Mike Babcock to cancel Wednesday's practice.
The only player who skated was Nylander, who was worked hard by assistant coach D.J.
Smith. But it also meant Nylander had to return to action without a full practice with his teammates. He said it did not bother him unduly.
"I've skated two days in a row now with D.J. and got bagged so it was pretty good," Nylander said. "I'm really excited to get started on home ice and get the season going.
"I've been skating by myself so I was waiting to practice with the guys. Then the bus broke down so I was [like] oh, okay, one more day by myself."
The excitement took a while to build after a couple of decent shifts for Nylander, Matthews and left winger Patrick Marleau.
After that, it was a much slower pace through the first two periods until the Leafs turned it up in the third, probably after Babcock lit a fire under them in the second intermission.
When he took his first shift at 1:05 of the first period, there were cheers from the fans with a few faint boos in the mix. But when Nylander took the puck and circled the offensive zone with authority a few minutes later it was all cheers.
The cheers got louder when Kapanen and his new linemates combined for a textbook goal at 4:50. Johnsson fired the puck across the slot to Jake Gardiner at the point and he relayed it to the front of the net when Kapanen deftly flipped it into the open side of the net.
But the 1-0 lead didn't even last until the end of the Kadri line's shift.
Thirty-three seconds later, Kadri and company could not clear the puck out of the Leafs' zone and Jonathan Ericsson scored on a shot from the point. Sparks was screened on the play, although the shot was not exactly a rocket.
For the next 35 minutes, Red Wings took advantage of the Leafs' tendency to slumber in their own end and Sparks's inability to bail them out.
One minute after Ericsson's goal, Luke Glendening scored from the slot on a shot that could have been stopped. Then Gustav Nyquist froze Sparks with a fake and put a shot just under the crossbar with 13 seconds left in the first period.
The Wings took a 4-1 lead midway through the second period when defenceman Mike Green put a floater in the top corner.
There was no excuse for Sparks on that one.
Luckily for Sparks, the Leafs did that thing they do in the third period - score in bunches.
Babcock put his lines in a blender and cut back to three of them to shake things up, which included benching Nylander and giving Kapanen his old spot beside Matthews back.
John Tavares got things started at 2:38 with his 18th goal. In less than nine minutes, the Leafs tied the score with Zach Hyman and Johnsson doing the scoring.
Maple Leafs winger Kasperi Kapanen scores on Red Wings goaltender Jonathan Bernier during their matchup in Toronto on Thursday.
NATHAN DENETTE/ THE CANADIAN PRESS