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Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Garret Sparks makes a save as Nazem Kadri and New York Islanders’ Ryan Strome battle for position at Air Canada Centre on March 9. (John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports)
Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Garret Sparks makes a save as Nazem Kadri and New York Islanders’ Ryan Strome battle for position at Air Canada Centre on March 9. (John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports)

Rookies help Maple Leafs snap skid in 4-3 shootout win over Islanders Add to ...

It was midway through the first period, down 1-0, when William Nylander zipped over the blueline with the puck. He spun around to evade a defender, then juked back the other way, opening room for a quick pass to teammate Martin Marincin.

Marincin shot it and watched on as rookie Zach Hyman cleaned up the rebound for his second NHL goal.

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The Toronto Maple Leafs rookies were, again, on the board.

This was Game 6 of The Audition and little has come that easy so far for the Leafs kids. Even Nylander’s early assist was quickly whisked away from him, after the powers that be determined Marincin’s shot had hit another Leaf in front of the net before Hyman got it.

But Nylander made up for it late, swatting in the tying goal late in regulation, with the goalie out and the Leafs desperately pushing for overtime.

With that, the previous 59 minutes of frustration melted away.

The Leafs kids finally won on Wednesday. It took a come-from-behind rally and a shootout – with Nikita Soshnikov doing the honours there with a nifty backhand – to down the red-hot New York Islanders 4-3, but this is a victory Toronto will gladly take after five consecutive one-goal losses since they recalled the youngsters en masse.

The Leafs rookies had already shown they can score and contribute in the NHL.

Now they know they can win.

As usual, Nylander was front and centre in this one. He played 16 minutes on Wednesday and was muscled off the puck a couple times low in the offensive zone. He was also guilty of being a little too fancy in the shootout, as netminder Thomas Greiss deftly poke-checked away his attempt.

But there’s no doubt Nylander also is starting look more comfortable with the puck, knowing when to pounce (as with the goal) and when to hand off (as with the near assist).

Of late, Leafs coach Mike Babcock has been showing Nylander videos of NHL superstar centres from other teams, such as Jonathan Toews and David Krejci, wanting him to see what it takes – energy-wise – to battle for the puck and get it back for your team.

“I thought this was Nylander’s best game by a mile,” Babcock said.

Nylander has also had an up-close view of greatness in many of his first games, facing Steven Stamkos in the first, Nicklas Backstrom in the second and then Islanders captain John Tavares on Wednesday. What he hasn’t been given, however, is a chance to go up against them all that often, as Babcock has been careful to protect his green rookie from quality competition as much as he can.

He has also tried to protect the eighth overall pick from any cumbersome comparisons from the media.

“Well, Tavares, it’s like comparing someone to [Nick] Lidstrom or Stamkos,” Babcock said in response to one question. “Let’s not get carried away. Nylander is Nylander. Over time he’ll decide how much you guys [in the media] talk about him or don’t.”

Babcock has made no secret of the fact he would rather be playing Nylander on the wing right now, something he says has been made virtually impossible by the Leafs’ roster situation. Teams are allowed only four call-ups after the trade deadline, and the Leafs already burned three to keep Nylander and company eligible for the AHL playoffs.

Barring an injury and emergency recall, Babcock is left with only three natural centres – Nazem Kadri, Peter Holland and Nylander – and the trial by fire for the 19-year-old has to continue in the middle, where so much more can go wrong.

“You’re just trying to get adjusted to the game here,” Nylander said. “It’s played a little differently.”

This was apparently the Leafs’ plan all along, to work Nylander in now, in these meaningless late-season games, and burn a year of his entry-level contract. But there have been growing pains for the kid who is now the youngest Leaf by nearly two years.

It can’t be a coincidence that Hyman and Soshnikov – the Leafs’ older call-ups – have looked far more comfortable early on. Those two were smaller on the marquee when called up but obviously deserve to stay and have pencilled themselves in for a roster spot next fall.

Nylander will be there, too, but it’s clear he has much more to absorb if he’s going to be at centre at that point.

At the very least, his confidence is coming.

“It hasn’t really been that much harder than I what I thought,” Nylander said. “I’m not saying it’s easy, but … you’re learning every day from mistakes.”

“I get optimism from when I see our kids,” Babcock said of the bigger picture. “I get optimism because I know what’s going on. I knew what I was getting into [with the Leafs’ rebuild]. That doesn’t mean you know what it’s like to lose [night after night]. Losing is hard, it’s way harder than winning.”

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