William Nylander just can’t win this season, it would appear.
Raked liberally over the coals after it took him 12 games to record a goal after returning to play following a protracted contract dispute, the Toronto Maple Leafs forward was once again front and centre Monday night against the Nashville Predators – again for all the wrong reasons.
Nylander – unwittingly, of course – factored heavily into two of the Predators goals in the second period at Scotiabank Arena, and it was enough to help lift Nashville to a 4-0 victory before a somewhat disillusioned gathering of just more than 19,000.
It was a contest featuring two of the elites in the National Hockey League. And the outcome left some distaste in the mouths of the Leafs, especially after a goalless opening 20 minutes in which the home team could have easily led by as many as two markers.
As it was, the luckless Leafs trailed 2-0 heading into the third period and, try as they might, they could not solve the riddle in the Nashville net by the name of Pekka Rinne, who turned aside 18 shots to earn his third shutout of the season.
“I think we did a lot of good things tonight, especially the first two periods,” said Toronto centre Auston Matthews. “Sometimes it’s just the way it goes - a couple posts, a goal called back.
“But it’s no excuse in this locker room, we still got to bear down and do our best to capitalize on our opportunities.”
Matthews came close to bringing the Leafs back into the game, facing an open side of the net from in close as Toronto enjoyed the man advantage close to the midway point of the third.
But his shot clanged off the post, the second time such bad luck had befallen him in the contest.
Goals by Colton Sissons and then Kevin Fiala over the final three minutes of the game sealed Toronto’s fate.
Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban scored the other goals for the Predators.
For the Leafs, who were shutout for the second time in their past four games, their next outing is on Thursday in New Jersey against the Devils.
“I thought we got a lesson from a veteran team here today,” said Toronto coach Mike Babcock. “I thought really in the third period in particular they … felt we were going to come out and race around.
“They just stayed patient and did it right.”
Toronto was coming off a 5-0 shutout win over the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday that snapped a mini two-game slide.
Matthews notched three points in the Vancouver game (one goal, two assists), raising his tally to 12 points in his previous eight games while Michael Hutchinson, who made his third straight start in net Monday night, notched the shutout.
Matthews came into Monday’s game with 39 points (20 goals, 19 assists), a commendable output considering he missed 14 games earlier in the season with a separated shoulder.
It is safe to say that he has fully recovered from that setback, a testament to the player’s solid work ethic, according to Babcock.
Babcock said the young centre is fortunate that others on the team are equally industrious, setting a good tone for others on the club to follow.
“I think we’ve got a real good example here for our guys in [Patrick] Marleau and in [John] Taveras, and in the professionalism they have,” Babcock said heading into Monday’s game. “God touched you with the wand and gave you the skill, but he didn’t necessarily give you that work ethic to grind every day to keep getting better.
“If you want to be the best of the best, it’s a long career.”
The Predators have been a streaky team this season but good enough to possess one of the top records in the Western Conference. If any team could contain the high-octane attack the Leafs possess it was this one, entering the contest with a league-leading 2.51 goals against average.
There were no goals in a fast-paced and enjoyable opening 20 minutes where the Leafs' attack was foisted by the iron behind Rinne.
First it was Matthews, who rang a slapshot off the post early in the game. He was joined late in the period by Kasperi Kapanen, whose tip-in attempt after a feathery cross-ice feed by Connor Brown on a two-on-one rush, also careened off the upright.
Nashville finally got the offence started in the second period when Ekholm’s shot from the point during a power play eluded a crowd in front of Hutchinson and the puck soared into the net up high for a 1-0 lead at the 4 minute, 8 second mark.
Toronto felt they had the rejoinder less than a minute later when a Matthews’s backhander from in close got past Rinne. But the goal was disallowed on a review that must have involved a slide ruler (it was that close) as Nylander was judged to have gone offside on the rush into the Nashville zone.
It was that kind of a period for Nylander.
After the Predators won an offensive zone faceoff, the puck wound up on Subban’s stick at the point. He weighed into his heavy shot and the puck deflected off Nylander in front and into the Leaf goal for a 2-0 Nashville lead at 13:11.