The Maple Leafs had reason to be wary of a trip to Sweden in the midst of an uneven start to their regular season.
Now, they’ll be reluctant to leave Stockholm and Avicii Arena behind, especially favourite son William Nylander, after a two-game sweep in their part of the NHL’s Global series. A 4-3 overtime decision over the Minnesota Wild, after an 8 a.m. Toronto time puck drop, capped a nostalgic trip to the nation they share the strongest hockey connections.
Nylander, with another smorgasbord of relatives on hand, had the winner after extending his club record point streak to 17 games. Despite the Leafs letting a two-goal lead escape in the third period, two huge defensive plays kept it alive for Nylander to be the hero.
When all three Leafs on the ice for the tiebreaker inexplicably went to the same corner and left Joel Eriksson Ek open, Joseph Woll made one of 33 saves. Then first star of the game Morgan Rielly had a huge shot block on Marcus Johansson, sending Nylander the other way for a dandy deke of Marc-Andre Fleury.
“We started feeling our game back in Toronto (two wins before departing) and now it’s nice to bring it back here,” Nylander told Sportsnet. “It was special for me to do that in overtime, but I wish we didn’t go to OT.
“It’s been a blast, I love being here and hopefully we can do it again some time.”
After the late Leaf legend Borje Salming’s son Anders dropped the puck prior to Friday’s 3-2 win over Detroit, franchise leading scorer Mats Sundin did the honours Sunday.
Toronto, with a record of 6-0 leading after 40 minutes, looked in control when Rielly snapped them into a two-goal lead early in the third. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner had the assists, Matthews tying Bob Pulford for ninth in franchise scoring with his 563rd point, while an earlier helper by Marner on Matthew Knies’ goal made him the fastest Leaf to 400 assists, doing it in 524 games.
But Jake Middleton became the second Wild defenceman to score in the match, then Norwegian-born Mats Zuccarello drove Woll’s net to tip in a Brock Faber pass with half a period to go.
Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe promised a better start than Friday’s early trepidation against Detroit, given his team was now used to the time change and nuances of Avicii and like Friday, played a foe on a back-to-back.
But they gave up an early goal against the grinding Wild, which pressed them hard and from long range got a rare goal from Jon Merrill.
Minnesota’s league-worst penalty kill provided the Leafs two opportunities in the period, the second cashed by Matthews after a four-game fade in the goal department, putting him back for a tie in the league lead pending the rest of Sunday’s games. Nylander’s initial shot was deflected to ruffle the veteran Fleury.
Warhorse defenceman Mark Giordano, who’d over-skated an empty net crossbar rebound from John Tavares, was the catalyst on the Knies goal, which caught Fleury’s five hole coming across the crease.
However, the Leafs couldn’t pull away in the second, too busy killing three penalties, including one when a fed-up Marner whacked Eriksson Ek in retaliation for getting mugged in front of Fleury.
And while they looked sharp doing so, they were not winning many 5-on-5 battles in their end in the period, allowing Kirill Kaprizov a free look. Woll stayed right with the star winger with a stretch pad save that preserved the lead.
It had to be a weird and wonderful feeling for Giordano watching Sundin drop the puck. In Giordano’s first game in his hometown of Toronto, as a Calgary Flame, on Oct. 14, 2006, he scored twice and was having a dream night. Until Sundin fired a hat trick, including the overtime winner, short-handed, for his 500th NHL goal.
The Wild were low in the Central Division before the game and now have just two regulation wins against Toronto in the past 11 meetings.
The Leafs head home a point behind Florida for second place in the Atlantic Division, get a few days rest then back-to-back U.S. Thnaksgiving road games against Connor Bedard and the Chicago Blackhawks and old boss Kyle Dubas’ Pittsburgh Penguins.