STOCKHOLM — William Nylander has been front and centre over the past few days, unquestionably becoming the face of the NHL’s 2023 Global Series in Sweden. And so when the Leafs began their first game of the series looking slow and beaten down by jet lag, who else would take the team on his back but Nylander, putting on the kind of show his Swedish fans came to see.
Nylander’s goal and two assists drove the Leafs as they came back from being down 2-0 in the third period to win 3-2 over the Red Wings.
“A very special day for all the Swedes on our team,” Nylander said.
1. William Nylander
Some players might wilt under the pressure of being the star in an NHL-led event. Not Nylander, who continued his 16-game point streak to open the season. He now has 11 goals and 25 points on the season.
Against the Red Wings, Nylander played with typical smoothness. Whatever his secret for getting over jet lag is, I think there’s plenty of travelling fans in Europe who would love to have at it. The dynamic forward continues to look like the Leafs’ best player this season.
2. John Tavares
A goal and two assists from the captain. He might not have had as electric a performance as Nylander, but he made the right plays at the right time.
3. Ilya Samsonov
There are still going to be questions about Samsonov in the near future as he works to overcome a shaky start to the season. But stopping 27 of 29 shots with notable athleticism on very little sleep, as he admitted postgame, is a good way to answer some of those questions.
Mats Sundin reads out the Leafs opening lineup
To the surprise of the team, former Leafs and Swedish icon Mats Sundin read out the team’s opening lineup, which included every healthy Swede.
“He’s a legend,” William Lagesson said.
Our connection to Sweden runs deep 🔵⚪️🟡
Thanks for stopping by, Mats! pic.twitter.com/J72r64UqZl
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) November 17, 2023
“The way he led the way was extremely impressive and it’s something you don’t take lightly, and idolize,” Tavares said.
Leafs fans outnumber Red Wings fans, but only just
From my perspective, walking around Stockholm this week it was difficult to spot Leafs jerseys compared to the number of Red Wings. Both teams have strong connections to Sweden but, throughout the week, that Friday’s game was a Red Wings home game felt fitting.
The ratio of fans changed very quickly once inside the dome-shaped Avicii Arena, with dark blue sweaters aplenty contrasting the bright red seats in the building. In terms of total jerseys, I’d give the edge to people in blue and white compared to red and white, but it’s close. And it was a surreal sight to see the likes of Bryan McCabe Leafs jerseys in Stockholm, for sure.
Sleepy start for Leafs
The Leafs had some creative touches in the offensive zone in the first period but that was about it. They put up just five shots in the first period and didn’t look much more aggressive in attack in the second period with nine shots.
For anyone who watched the first game of the Global Series the day before, the Leafs’ start was reminiscent of the sluggish Red Wings start when they allowed three goals in the first period. Talking to Leafs players this week, one of the first things many will tell you is that they’re really feeling the jet lag. Players admitted to getting nothing more than a handful of hours sleep during the overnight flight to Sweden and that they’re waking up in the middle of the night, as many often do. For context, the Red Wings arrived in Stockholm on Sunday and had two more days in Europe than the Leafs had to get acclimatized.
Crowd takes time to wake up
Perhaps it was the fact that the roof of Avicii Arena rises high up into the sky, leaving more than half the building itself empty, but there was less buzz and fan energy than expected throughout the game. Was it because the first half of the game didn’t offer much back-and-forth, maybe? There were a few short-lived attempts at the wave here and there, and some quick chants. But the start of Friday night’s game left those expecting a raucous atmosphere often typical of Swedish Hockey League games disappointed.
Things did start to turn during an impromptu sing-a-long of a cover of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which was obviously surprising.
Eventful game for Samsonov
During the Leafs’ lethargic start, they had their goaltender to thank for keeping the game close. Samsonov made a number of acrobatic, stretching saves and there were moments when he looked as strong as he has all season. It felt like if the Leafs were going to keep sleepwalking, Samsonov would end up being the story of the game.
But a nifty penalty shot goal from Red Wings forward Daniel Sprong froze Samsonov and the Leafs goalie was beat cleanly by a Lucas Raymond shot less than two minutes later.
Samsonov’s status in the game then looked in doubt early in the third period when he took a Klim Kostin shot to the bottom of his mask. He was very slow to get up and the arena got very quiet very quickly, but did recover to get the win.
huge stop from Samsonov with 33 seconds left pic.twitter.com/w6shmQcQsA
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) November 17, 2023
The Leafs’ top line didn’t have an impactful game, generating just a single shot. But the Nylander-led second line made up for it. That line dominated the game with 85 percent of the five-on-five expected goals and scored both of the team’s even-strength goals. Nylander’s slick movement in the offensive zone led to a Tyler Bertuzzi tap-in for the Leafs’ first goal was a highlight that was going to be used to advertise games in Sweden for years to come.
Nylander puts it on a tee for Bertuzzi pic.twitter.com/VvOVOs41uj
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) November 17, 2023
Final grade: B+
After the Leafs’ uneven play through the first period or so, you wondered if the Leafs wouldn’t be looking so fondly on this trip to Sweden. But it ended up being a tale of two games, as the visitors did build momentum as the game wore on. The Leafs ended up improving their five-on-five possession each period. So all’s well that ends well, right?
What’s next for the Leafs?
Grab some coffee and pancakes as the Leafs return to the Avicii Arena to play the Minnesota Wild at 8 a.m. ET on Sunday.
(Top photo: Jonathan Nackstrand / TT News Agency / AFP via Getty Images)