VANCOUVER — In his first game since returning to the lineup after quarantining for nine days, William Nylander didn’t mince words about Vancouver Canucks defenseman Alexander Edler’s knee-on-knee hit of Toronto Maple Leafs forward.
“It was a pretty dirty hit.”
The Toronto Maple Leafs fell to the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 in overtime in a heavily one-sided game that was won by a heroic performance in net from Canucks goaltender Braden Holtby.
Playing their first game in over a month, the expectations weren’t high for the Canucks. Toronto dominated in just about every basic and advanced stat there is. But Holtby frustrated the Leafs and head coach Sheldon Keefe.
“I don’t know,” Keefe said about the Canucks’ play. “Their goalie made ten point-blank saves.”
The Leafs are winless in their last four games. Goaltender Jack Campbell—who set a record with 11 straight wins—has struggled since. He made 21 saves on 24 shots and two of the goals allowed were unobstructed chances from a distance. His save percentage in his last three appearances is 0.789.
Toronto’s power play managed to score on Sunday, but it took the final 19 seconds of a five-minute major penalty to break through. The major was assessed midway through the second period when Vancouver defenseman Alexander Edler hit Zach Hyman with his knee along the boards.
Hyman left the game and didn’t return.
Hyman laid on the ice in pain for a considerable amount of time, but managed to skate off and hobbled into the tunnel without assistance.
Perhaps a better sign for the team was the report given by teammate John Tavares of Hyman after the game.
“I know he was really positive in the room (and) very optimistic,” Tavares said. “So hopefully nothing too serious.”
Keefe said they’ll know more about the severity of Hyman’s injury on Monday. Edler received a five-minute major and a game misconduct on the hit.
Hyman has easily been Toronto’s most versatile player this season. He has 15 goals and 18 assists in 43 games and has played a valuable role on any line he’s played on.
Hyman suffered a torn ACL to the same right knee during the 2019 NHL Playoffs. He had surgery in the following offseason and didn’t return until a month into the following season.
“He’s battled through so many things since my time being here, the competitor that he is,” Tavares said of Hyman. “It’s impressive, obviously, he plays such a key role for us.”
Hyman is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. He’s valuable penalty killer and has served on the power play. Although on Sunday, Toronto didn’t use him in that role.
Nylander and Auston Matthews both scored goals in their return to action.
Nylander opened the scoring in the first period. He played his first game since entering quarantine on Apr. 7 for contact tracing.
Matthews missed one game due to a hand/wrist injury that flared up but scored in the second period with just 19 seconds remaining on a five-minute power-play that gave Toronto a 2-0 lead.
The Leafs fired 13 shot attempts during that opportunity and weren’t able to squeak one through Holtby. The 14th finally went in when.
“Holtby played unreal tonight” Matthews said. “He made some unbelievable saves and he stood on his head for them.”
Vancouver began a string of three unanswered goals. Bo Horvat cut Toronto’s lead to 2-1 with just 1:07 after after Edler’s major penalty expired.
The third period saw the Leafs continue to apply pressure to the Canucks, but Holtby came up with heroic saves to deny the Leafs.
The most memorable one came when Holtby made a poke check and circus save on Wayne Simmonds.
1:08 after the save, Nils Hoglander tied the game 2-2 when he picked up a rebound in front of the net and beat Campbell at 16:23.
Toronto continued to apply pressure and thought they had the go-ahead goal with 20 seconds remaining. Matthews’ initial rush hit the crossbar but the puck later bounced toward Holtby, who straddled his pads along the goal line to obstruct any clear view of the puck going into the net.
The play was reviewed and the call on the ice of no-goal was confirmed.
Horvat scored his second goal of the game for the OT winner at 1:19.
You have to feel for the Canucks, who went through a challenging ordeal over the last few weeks. COVID-19 spread through their entire team. They voiced their concerns candidly earlier in the week when they felt they were being rushed to come back too soon. The league postponed their original return date on Thursday to Sunday.
After Vancouver’s J.T. Miller spoke candidly of the experience, you didn’t know what to expect. What they got was a heroic performance from their goaltender and they pulled out a win, even if logic dictated they probably shouldn’t.
The Leafs experimented with different pairs on defense, The top two pairs switched partners as Justin Holl skated with Morgan Rielly, while TJ Brodie played with Jake Muzzin. The power-play looked different with Matthews, Nylander, Tavares and Mitch Marner reunited to load up the first unit. They scored a goal, but the performance overall was still uninspiring. Their goaltending hasn’t looked great, either.
This was the game Toronto looked to experiment with their lineup. It was the right strategy but the wrong implementation.
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