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Sandin stepping up to help Maple Leafs make playoff push

Rookie defenseman has six points in 10 games, including first NHL goal

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

NASHVILLE -- Rasmus Sandin's whoop of joy could be heard all the way up in the press box at Bridgestone Arena on Monday.

The Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman had scored his first NHL goal at 4:41 of the second period, one that would be the eventual game-winner in a 5-2 victory against the Nashville Predators.

"I've had a lot of dreams about how I would have celebrated," Sandin said, recalling his time growing up in Sweden. "I don't think I did any of them except for the screaming.

"That was a great feeling."

For all of the Maple Leafs.

If Toronto is to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it will need contributions from more than core players like forwards Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander. Whether it's a 19-year-old-rookie like Sandin or a 36-year-old veteran like forward Jason Spezza, the supporting cast will be relied upon to chip in like it did Monday.

Sandin was 2 when Spezza scored his first NHL goal Oct. 29, 2002. Almost two decades later, Sandin and Spezza, 17 years apart in age, each scored in a victory that started the unofficial second half of the season.

Selected by the Maple Leafs with the No. 29 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, Sandin became the first Toronto player born in the 21st century (March 7, 2000) to score a goal. The puck was quickly scooped up by fellow Swede Nylander, who knew it would be a keepsake Sandin will treasure.

"I thought he was going to hit me in the face with [that shot] so I'm glad it went in," Nylander said with a laugh.

There were plenty of reasons for the Maple Leafs to be chuckling aside from Sandin's milestone.

Defensemen Jake Muzzin returned after missing 10 games with a broken foot and played a team-high 22:38. He also led the Maple Leafs with four hits.

Matthews showed the wrist injury that kept him out of the 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend was not an issue. He scored his 35th goal, won 9 of 13 face-offs and took four shots on goal, tied for the game high.

Video: TOR@NSH: Sandin fires home first NHL goal

Nylander scored his 23rd goal of the season, an NHL career high, and has scored in four consecutive games. He was caught off guard when informed that he needed three more goals to tie his dad Michael's NHL career-high of 26, which he set in 2007-08 with the New York Rangers.

"Really? Wow. We've really got to step it up here," William said with a grin.

That goes for the entire team.

Toronto (26-17-7) is two points behind the Florida Panthers for third in the Atlantic Division and trails the Carolina Hurricanes, who hold the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference, by the same margin. Coach Sheldon Keefe is hoping the urgency the Maple Leafs need to earn a postseason berth will keep producing efforts like the victory against Nashville.

"It's going to be difficult for us and it's going to be a fight right to the very end," Keefe said. "If we're successful in the mission to get there, we feel like we will have grown a lot as a team to be able to put ourselves in that position and that'll serve us well going forward.

"But we think we've got a lot of areas to grow as a team and the conditions of the standings being what they are going to demand that of us."

For that to happen going forward, efforts like those from Sandin will play a significant role.

By playing his 10th NHL game Monday, the first year of his three-year entry-level contract kicked in. He has six points (one goal, five assists) in his first 10 games.

Sandin had two points (one goal, one assist) against the Predators, including a long flip pass that set up Nylander's breakaway goal to open the scoring at 4:13 of the first period. His goal, which came after he picked up a rebound in the slot, gave Toronto a 3-1 lead.

Keefe coached Sandin with Toronto of the American Hockey League.

"I'm pumped for him to score the goal," Keefe said. "It was a big goal for us at that point in the game as well.

"I'm not surprised by his poise. I've come to expect that from him. I think we all have. He showed that through training camp and through this first recall as well, I think. He's building really nicely there for us he and fits in well too just having another player who puts the puck into our forwards' hands well and keeps the offense moving."

After the game, Muzzin, who said he felt fine on the ice, walked into the dressing room, pointed at Sandin, and said: "There he is."

"He's played great for us," Muzzin said. "We're going to need everyone chipping in like that."

On Monday, they pretty much did.

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