From the beginning, Ilya Mikheyev has been beloved by Maple Leafs fans.
First for his early struggle to learn English after he arrived in Toronto in 2019 from Siberia.
“I have one-hour lesson,” he said. “I use Google Translate and watch Netflix and get help from friends.”
Next for an enduring love of soup that landed him a Campbell’s commercial during his rookie season.
“I like soup,” he said. “I don’t know why you don’t like soup. My girlfriend cooks it for me.”
Then for his mix of innocence and humour. After breaking an in-net camera with a goal during a Hockey Night in Canada telecast, he offered an apology: “I am sorry. I will pay for it.”
Above all, Mikheyev earned allegiance with the immediate impact he had on the team. In his first 39 NHL games, the winger cobbled together 23 points.
That is when a freak accident derailed his rapid rise within the Maple Leafs.
On Dec. 27, 2019, the artery in his right wrist was severed by an opponent’s skate during a game in New Jersey. The injury was so grave that Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas accompanied him to the hospital and stayed behind as Mikheyev underwent life-saving surgery.
It would take months and months of rehab for Mikheyev to regain use of his right hand and to be able to grip a hockey stick. He missed the remainder of the season and then struggled when he returned for the COVID-19-abbreviated 2020-21 campaign.
Before it even started, there was talk that a trade had been requested because he feared a lack of playing time. Then despite numerous opportunities, he scored just seven times in 54 regular-season games and failed to register a point in Toronto’s first-round loss to Montreal in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The hope was that he would return to the form he had shown in four seasons in the KHL and that led to his early success in the NHL. Then near the end of an excellent training camp he was sidelined again – this time with a broken thumb that caused him to miss the first eight weeks of 2021-22.
“We felt he had a terrific training camp and looked like he was going to have a great season,” said Sheldon Keefe, the Maple Leafs coach. “He was kind of wiping the slate clean in terms of some of the lack of offensive production he had [in 2021].
“He thought he was capable of more and was off to a great start when he had tough luck with another injury.”
Mikheyev worked through it and returned to play on Dec. 14 and then promptly was diagnosed with the coronavirus. It was easy enough to shake one’s head and say, “Here we go again.”
He didn’t return to the lineup until New Year’s Day when he scored twice in a 6-0 victory over Ottawa. Since then he has three more goals and an assist in five games.
On Saturday, he squeezed a shot through St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington in the third period for a 6-5 victory.
“I don’t think he is doing a whole lot different this season than any of the previous,” Keefe said. “He is just having better luck. That is huge for him and great for his confidence and us. The more depth in scoring we have the better.”
The Maple Leafs had a day off in Toronto on Sunday after returning from a trip during which they earned five of a possible eight points against Colorado, Vegas, Arizona and St. Louis. The 2-1 loss to the Coyotes was the only poor effort. They travel to New York to play the Rangers on Wednesday and are a healthy third behind Florida and Tampa Bay in the Atlantic Division.
Mikheyev, 27, is originally from Omsk, Russia, and has mastered English a bit better. He has also regained the joy that he temporarily lost in a dark stretch over two seasons.
On Saturday, neither he nor his teammates knew the puck went in on his game-winner.
“I didn’t see the puck at all but I saw the official pointing at it,” Keefe said. “There was a good long pause.”
Mikheyev just threw it at the net and hoped for the best.
“I didn’t see the puck,” Mikheyev said. “I just saw John Tavares celebrating.”
He was asked what the difference is between this season and last. He mulled his answer and smiled an impish smile.
“It is luck,” Mikheyev said. “I think so, yes.”