Maple Leafs hope William Nylander keeps pace in Game 4

The Maple Leafs offense has had to find some creative ways to produce without John Tavares.

In Game 3, it was defenseman Morgan Rielly scoring the game winner and sending Toronto to a 2-1 series lead over the Canadiens. Ahead of Game 4, there’s hints of a William Nylander breakout.

Nylander tallied the first goal on Monday night, the third consecutive game he’s scored in to open the playoffs. That’s a good sign for a squad that could have seen its offense begin to falter.

“He’s a dominant player when he’s on his game and we need that from him,” goalie Jack Campbell said after Game 3. “He’s such a special player, he’s bringing it, and he’s getting the boys going and other guys are stepping up and up. Everybody’s doing the best they can and Willie is leading it.”

Now Nick Foligno is also out with an undisclosed injury. The veteran forward is day-to-day after missing Game 3, so his status is up in the air. Someone like Nylander, if he can keep producing, can make up for a lot of production at this pace.

“He’s competing a lot harder,” said Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe. “He’s really engaged when offense comes. Obviously he’s scored huge goals. But I think I was most impressed with him in the third period.”

For someone who has been critiqued for an ambivalence to defense at times in Toronto, Nylander has contributed on that side of the puck as well.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2021 First Round schedule, TV info]

It’s a more confident style from Nylander than he’s shown in a while, and his game is benefitting. Skating without his two linemates, and instead skating with Alexander Kerfoot and Alex Galchenyuk, Nylander hasn’t missed a beat, because his game is coming from himself.

“You learn over the years and every time you lose it digs even harder,” said Nylander after Game 3. “You want to battle and battle and get better every year.”

It doesn’t come out of nowhere either; the 25-year-old Nylander had a point in 12 of his last 14 regular season games. His growth has been gradual since the midway point of the season, when Keefe challenged him following a two-goal overtime win.

“Why is he misunderstood? I think Willy has to own some of that,” said Keefe in late February. “He’s got to find more consistency in his game. He and I have talked a lot about those kind 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 just he’s still got to grow as a player.”

Nylander has done a lot of that growing late in the season and he might be the biggest reason the Leafs have a 2-1 lead in the series currently. In Montreal for Game 4, it’s hardly a given, especially since the Habs have played realatively well.

While the Leafs are without Tavares and now Foligno, it could be a lot worse, but Nylander’s newfound confidence and production is a big reason the Leafs are where they’re at, and they have to feel good about that.

SERIES SCHEDULE – Stream Here
Game 1: Canadiens 2, Maple Leafs 1
Game 2: Maple Leafs 5, Canadiens 1
Game 3: Maple Leafs 2, Canadiens 1
Tuesday, May 25: Maple Leafs at Canadiens, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Thursday, May 27: Canadiens at Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
*Saturday, May 29: Maple Leafs at Canadiens TBD
*Monday, May 31: Canadiens at Maple Leafs TBD

Marisa Ingemi is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Ingemi.

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