It hasn’t been an easy Calder Cup run for William Nylander. After missing the Toronto Marlies’ series opener against the Albany Devils in the second round with an illness, Nylander returned to the lineup to post just four points in nine games.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Marlies dropped the first three games of their series with the Hershey Bears. Nylander, for his part, had just seven points in 12 games ahead of the Marlies’ first elimination game of the year. He sat seventh on the team in points and eighth in shots on goal (24).
And head coach Sheldon Keefe took note, pointing to his recently-turned 20-year-old star’s lack of production and effort on several occasions. Nylander was, in Keefe’s own words, playing with his foot off the gas. He needed to be a lot better.
With the season on the line on Friday night, Nylander showed up. Keefe dressed just 11 forwards in order to use his best forwards as much as possible, he said. It was on Nylander to step up.
"He was the benefactor of that, we asked guys to step up and get us rolling in the series," Keefe said of Nylander.
Double-shifted on the top line with Ben Smith and Kasperi Kapanen and the fourth line with Colin Smith and Nikita Soshnikov, Nylander was counted on to be the offensive presence that registered 45 points in 38 games with the Marlies in the regular season.
After taking a pair of big hits on his first shift, Nylander spent his first four shifts on the cycle in the offensive zone and registered an early shot, a narrow miss on a shot attempt wide and left, and two made passes to the slot for Kapanen.
Late in the period, he was rewarded.
After applying pressure on the puck, Nylander slid into the slot to retrieve it and beat Justin Peters cleanly blocker side.
In the second period, after Peters stopped Nylander point blank off the left wing, the former eighth overall pick nearly set up Kapanen (again). As in the first period though, Nylander was eventually rewarded, kicking a bad pass from Connor Carrick off his skate to one-touch it under the bar for the 2-0 lead.
As the Marlies extended their lead to three and then four goals in the third period, Nylander picked up the elusive third assist on a powerplay goal from Josh Leivo.
The hat trick appeared inevitable. And as the Marlies took to an extended 5-on-3, Nylander and T.J. Brennan played give-and-go at the point until the Swede put a one-timer off the crossbar for the hat trick and a 5-0 lead.
For Nylander, an active first few shifts was key. "It was good to get going early," he said of his strong start post-game.
And while the powerplay, which has struggled to score all postseason broke out for three goals, Nylander was convinced it was only a matter of time.
"The powerplay has had the chemistry, we just haven’t been able to score," he said.
Much like the powerplay, Nylander’s Marlies teammates knew he would come up big.
"It was just a matter of time," goaltender Antoine Bibeau said. "Willie was a huge part of the win."
But the job isn’t done and Nylander knows he needs to be great for three more games if the Marlies are going to advance to the Calder Cup Final.
"They were up 3-0 and won pretty good last game. Of course they’re going to be made but it’s just one game so we just have to forget about this game," he said. "It’s always nice to score but it’s nice to win."
Keefe echoed his star forward’s lack of excitement too. The job isn’t done.
"They’re still very much in control of the series," Keefe said.
Still, the positive results for Nylander were much needed.
"Willie responded in a big way," Keefe added "He shot the puck a lot tonight. "
But they’ll need three more standout performances from their most dangerous scorer.
"Let’s be honest, this was an easy one for us, this is a game we absolutely should win," Keefe said. "It’s pretty easy for them to look beyond this one and get ready for the next one."
Nylander (who now has 10 points in 13 playoff games) and the Marlies don’t have that luxury.