Toronto Star Classroom Connection

Nylander ends Sweden trip in style

Netting overtime winner in front of hometown fans a ‘pretty special’ moment for Leafs star


It was a storybook ending for William Nylander and the Maple Leafs that left Auston Matthews wanting a sequel.

The too-good-to-be-true story ended on Nylander’s overtime goal for a 4-3 win over the Minnesota Wild and a two-game sweep by the Leafs in their NHL Global Series debut in Nylander’s hometown.

“It’s a fitting end to the week, for sure,” coach Sheldon Keefe said after Sunday’s game. “For us, for Willie, for the fans, the city, the country, all that kind of stuff ... Of course, I would prefer if we didn’t get to the overtime. But if that’s what you had to do to have a finish like that, we’ll take it.”

The Leafs head home with four points and a few days off until their next game in Chicago on Friday. As soon as the series was over, Matthews had an idea for the future.

“Maybe, like, Mexico City?” Matthews said with a tone that was part question, part hope. “That would be fun. I could go home for a bit.”

The suggestion floated by Matthews, whose mother is Mexican, is sure to get tongues wagging and plant a seed within the NHL that maybe playing there could grow the game like these annual trips to more hockey-friendly destinations in Europe.

“It sounds like a wonderful idea,” said Keefe. “Good on Auston. That’s a very important place to him.

“And I think the more places you connect to like that (the better). Obviously the game’s probably not as entrenched in the culture there as it is here (in Sweden). But to go places like that I think (would be) tremendous. More importantly, to have somebody like Auston, that would be so important to him and speaks to how diverse our game is and how much it’s grown.”

There are 1,232 registered hockey players in Mexico. The men’s national team plays in the world championship Division III and the women in Division II, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation.

Matthews threw Mexico into the mix even after seeing all the demands on Nylander for a week in his hometown.

“We all love Willie,” said Matthews. “He’s a special guy. He’s a special player. And I have no doubt that this is a trip that he will remember.”

Busy Willie

No one had a busier time in Sweden that Nylander and that’s saying something, because each of the four teams involved included plenty of Swedes. Like everyone else, Nylander practised and played — though perhaps better than anyone else. He had five points in two games, extending his streak to 17 straight games with at least a point to start the season.

That was on top of multiple media availabilities each day, both at the rink and special events such as the red carpet gala for the TV series chronicling Börje Salming’s life, and supporting the NHL Players’ Association Goals and Dreams charity. Plus he did a fan autograph signing, TV show appearances and entertained about 100 family and friends in attendance at both games.

All while his teammates and coach griped or fretted about how the six-hour time change interrupted their sleep.

“I went to an NHLPA dinner with him on Thursday night and then he did something the next day and I felt like I needed to have some time off,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly. “But he just kept going and played outstanding.

“He understood the magnitude of the trip and the games. I don’t think he was putting pressure on himself. But he likes to play well in big moments. This trip and these games are a good example of that.”

Nylander’s take? “It’s been weird. I’ve been walking around with my (Swedish) buddies and the next day go play an NHL game, so it’s been weird, but it’s been lots of fun.”

Tidy trip

The games were a bit uneven, but it turned into a tidy little trip for the Leafs in their first regular-season venture outside North America. They were the 26th of 32 teams to participate in such games.

Matthews, Rielly and Matthew Knies also scored Sunday, but Toronto squandered a 3-1 lead in the third period before Nylander salvaged the win in overtime.

“He’s got such confidence and swagger here now that he is just feeling like he can turn a game at any point in time,” Keefe said of Nylander.

“He stepped up in big moments and was a huge part of why we got four points here.”

On the winner, Nylander got the puck inside his blue line, sped down the wing, skated around Marcus Johansson and avoided a poke check before beating goalie MarcAndré Fleury.

“That was pretty special, for sure, to get that OT winner,” said Nylander.

Nylander’s 17-game point streak is tied for the eighth longest in NHL history from the start of a season. Dave Andreychuk also started with 17 in a row in 1992-93 season, matched by Henrik Zetterberg in 2007-08 and Connor McDavid in 2020-21.





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