Here are five takeaways from the Maple Leafs’ 3-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators Saturday at Air Canada Centre:
William Nylander’s first NHL goal one to remember.
Some NHL rookies score their first goal in hockey’s best league as a result of a fluky ricochet or lucky bounce, and others do it with pure skill. And in the fourth NHL game of his burgeoning professional career, centre William Nylander put himself in the latter group by rifling a sizzling wrist shot past Sens goalie Andrew Hammond at the 9:27 mark of the first period.
The goal was also Nylander’s first NHL point and came with an amazing link to the past: Buds centre Brooks Laich drew the lone assist – and nearly seven years ago, when he was with the Washington Capitals, Laich assisted on the final NHL goal in the stellar career of Nylander’s father, Michael.
“That’s a pretty neat statistic,” Laich said after the game. “I don’t know if that places me in the category of a cousin or an uncle. It gets me somewhere in there, but really happy for William. A tremendous shot. I remember my first goal, and for him, what a special, special moment. He’ll never forget it.”
Soshnikov continues to impress.
Like Nylander, winger Nikita Soshnikov was also playing in his fourth career NHL game after being recalled from the American League Marlies – and for the second time in three games, Soshnikov thrilled Leafs fans (and himself) by scoring a gorgeous, high-degree-of-difficulty goal.
This latest one came at the 12:10 mark of the middle frame on a Toronto power play, and gave the home side a lead that lasted until Sens D-man Marc Methot tied it early in the third period. But once again, Soshnikov was a force in more ways than one – he led the Leafs Saturday in hits, with 5, and shots, with 6 – and finished with a new career-best in ice time (19:01).
“You know what really impressed me about his game – everyone sees that he can shoot the puck and he can skate, but Sosh finishes his checks,” Laich said of Soshnikov. “He’s hard on the forecheck, battles on the puck. I thought he played very well all over the ice.”
Late-game letdown extends Leafs’ losing streak.
The Buds were all over the Sens for most of the night, outshooting Ottawa 14-9 in the first period and 43-31 through 60 minutes of play, but a late-game turnover led to Zack Smith’s game-winner and handed Toronto its fifth straight defeat. Every loss is difficult, but given how well they played, the Leafs felt the sting of this one.
“I think given our situation, we were up 2-1 going into the third period, I thought we were playing really, really well,” said winger Colin Greening. “Give Ottawa a lot of credit – they really pressed in the third, and that tying goal was really odd. It was kind of lucky. And then it was just the turnover at the very end. You’re two minutes away from at least getting a point and giving yourself a shot to win in overtime. So it was pretty frustrating.”
“I thought we played a really good game – 42 shots on net plus many more attempts,” added Laich. “I didn’t think they got much. Just tough to lose with two minutes left the way we did. Just shows it’s really tough to win in this league. Happy with our effort, just got to execute and finish the game off.”
Memorable reception for Phaneuf.
Former Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf was back in the ACC for the first time since last months’s trade that sent him to Ottawa, and the Leafs organization saluted him early in the first period with a video tribute on the JumboTron that had the veteran defenceman near tears on the Sens bench.
The ACC crowd offered a hearty ovation for Phaneuf, who also engaged in fisticuffs with Greening later in the first. He wasn’t the most outwardly emotional player in his time with the Leafs, but it was great to see the team and the city show their gratefulness – and just as great to see him wear his heart on his sleeve more than he ever has before.
The kids are still pushing the pace.
Despite the loss, Toronto’s game continued to accelerate – not just in terms of the development of the youngsters recalled from the Marlies, but in terms of the actual speed of the game the Leafs play. This isn’t to say the Buds were a slow team early in the season, but now, they’re as quick a squad as any in the league, and they’ve got players like Nylander, Zach Hyman and Soshnikov to thank for it.
“I thought we had lots of good things today,” said head coach Mike Babcock. “I thought Hyman, Sosh and Nylander were all real good for us, which is a positive. I thought our team pace was as good as it’s been all year.”
“The youth that we have right now – Soshie, Hyman, Leipsic, everyone – they bring a lot of youthful energy to the table,” added Greening. “That’s invigorating to the dressing room.”