Leafs pick Nylander a hit in world junior debut
Sweden's William Nylander and Czech Republic's Lukas Klok during a IIHF World Junior Championship game at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont on December 26, 2014. (Ernest Doroszuk/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency)
William Nylander was game-saver and crowd-pleaser at the same time.
For the tuft-haired blonde, who will likely call the Air Canada Centre home in coming years, Friday’s opening 5-2 win of the world junior hockey tournament couldn’t have worked out better. With his Swedish mates on their heels after two Czech Republic goals that tied the score 2-2, Nylander needed just 27 seconds to finish off a play for the game-winner.
Coming after a couple of wonderful setups that should have been goals by his confreres, his first of the tourney sparked a ‘Go Leafs Go’ chant from the sizeable group of Maple Leafs fans among 13,077. No doubt, that confused many visitors, but the chant delighted Swedish coach Rikard Gronborg.
“I know he was anxious, he really wanted to go out and play his game,” Gronborg said. “It was nice for him and nice for Toronto.
“That was a very important goal by him after we gave up the lead and it came off a set play, too. He needs to be a game breaker for us, along with a couple of other guys.”
While Canada plays its early tournament games in Montreal, Nylander and Russian defenceman Rinat Valiev, picked further down the list by Toronto last June, are a good consolation prize for local ticket sales. Russia beat the Danes in overtime earlier in the day.
There was no response as the in-house announcer read off the full lineups of Swedes and Czechs, until he got to Nylander, wearing Leafs icon Borje Salming’s No. 21.
“I didn’t really get to pick that,” Nylander claimed rather unconvincingly. “They just assigned that to me.”
So, did he object?
“Of course not,” he replied with a laugh.
His first two shifts showed why the Leafs thought enough to snare him eighth overall at the draft. He took the draw and immediately went looking for open ice on the left side. Gaining the puck, he almost did a complete loop of the Czech net, protecting the disk. On what would’ve been a picture goal, he zipped down the left side, easily eluded defenceman Lukas Klok and relayed to Oskar Lindblom, who somehow put an easy goal into the safety mesh.
On another chance, Nylander was in prime position after stepping up to take a drop pass, but his stick shattered on the shot. No matter, he erased two goals by Washington Capitals first- rounder Jakub Vrana when Lindblom found him in the slot, his only shot on goal in the game. He also won four of seven faceoffs and when David Nemecek was sentenced for getting his arm up into Nylander’s head in the third period, it led to an insurance power play goal by Adrian Kempe, a series of quick passes begun by Nylander himself.
“He’s an exciting player and he makes a lot of stuff happen,” Gronborg said. “It was nice to see him do well in 1-on-1 situations. That line with Lindblom and (Axel) Holmstrom really complement each other.
“He handled the pressure of this game well.”
Nylander said his taste of the smaller North American ice tactics during Leaf rookie camp and the NHL exhibition games came right back to him as soon as Team Sweden arrived in Toronto.
And the rest of the Swedes felt at home, too.
“Nice crowds and it’s really exciting to play here,” said defenceman Robert Hagg. “We want to play a fast game with a lot of puck possession and take it to the net.”
That was the case in early goals by Kempe and Jens Looke before Vrana got loose, coutesy of the Swedes getting too cute for their own good.
“We can’t look backwards on what happened today, just focus on the next one (Saturday against Switzerland),” Vrana said.
But they won’t soon forget Nylander.
VERY SWEDE WELCOME
The Borje Salming and Mats Sundin honoured-number banners have been taken down at the Air Canada Centre for the duration of the world junior hockey tournament.
Probably best for William Nylander, who is trying to win a gold medal for Sweden and doesn’t need another Maple Leafs-related distraction while in town. Yet, more than 13,000 fans, many of them starved for a Stanley Cup if not an entertaining player in blue and white, would not let Nylander be, without a ‘Go Leafs Go’ chant after his go-ahead goal in the second period of a 5-2 win over the Czech Republic.
“That’s amazing, a great feeling when you’re sitting on the bench,” Nylander said. “You want to come here, play your best and show you are one of the top players.”
Since 1973, the Leafs haven’t gone long without a strong Scandinavian presence. Salming was a pioneer defenceman who played 1,000 games for the Leafs and a few years later, Sundin arrived and began a fast track to becoming the highest scorer in franchise history.
FRIENDS TO FOES?
If they were to meet in a few years at the ACC, William Nylander and Jacob de la Rose will likely be engaged in hacking, not hugging.
A Montreal Canadiens' second rounder taken the year before Toronto selected Nylander eighth overall, de la Rose was placed beside him on Friday night in the interview area, chatting up a 5-2 win over the Czechs. de la Rose has played on the Hamilton Bulldogs against the Marlies and knows the Toronto-Montreal rivalry well.
“The two of us haven’t really talked about it, but hopefully one day, we will meet,” said de la Rose.
For now, he's more concerned with a world junior medal and bringing together the various NHL drafts on the Swedish side. He had the final goal of the game.
“We came out strong in the first period and had talked a lot about that because we’d struggled in exhibition games. We showed how good a team we are. William had a good game, but we need everyone to be successful in this tournament.”