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Maple Leafs’ Nylander rises to Keefe’s challenge after missed meeting

We’ll find out tonight.

Rather than punish William Nylander for missing an off-day meeting in Vancouver, that’s how Sheldon Keefe chose to challenge him. He practised Nylander in a grey sweater to draw everyone’s attention to what happened and then put him right back in Tuesday’s lineup against the Canucks, telling reporters that the quality of Nylander’s response to violating a team rule would be measured by his play.

“We’ll find out tonight,” said Keefe.

You can debate the merits of the approach, especially since Nylander chalked up his absence to an unreceived text message on a day Canada was hit by widespread telecommunications outages, but there was no missing Nylander’s quality during the 6-3 loss to the Canucks that followed it.

“Willy was great. Willy was really good here tonight,” said Keefe. “So it’s a great response. Obviously I think we see Willy’s capable of taking over hockey games and being a major difference-maker like he was tonight.

“Obviously you are looking for a response here tonight, but more importantly we’re looking for a more consistent response for the remainder of the season and definitely the playoffs.”

Nylander picked up two assists — finding linemate John Tavares on both of his goals — while drawing a penalty, setting a nice screen on Braden Holtby and directing a game-high six shots on net.

He’s now got eight points to show for his last four games and is fourth on the team with 34 points overall. Put another way: The Leafs five-game winless stretch doesn’t rest on his shoulders.

No, with L’Affaire Nylander now seemingly put to bed, the real issue keeping Keefe up at night is his goaltending. David Rittich said “I’m taking full responsibility for this game” following an ugly third period that included three goals against on Tuesday and prompted Keefe to name Jack Campbell his starter for Thursday’s game in Winnipeg before even walking out of Rogers Arena.

Toronto generated enough to take two wins out of this mini-series against a Canucks team returning from an extended COVID-19 absence and instead earned just one point due primarily to a lack of saves.

“I’m concerned about our goaltending, obviously,” said Keefe. “We’ve got to get that sorted out but I’m not concerned about our team. I believe in our group.

“We played well enough to win here tonight, we played well enough to win [Sunday] night.”

Add it all up and there’s a little more uncertainty than a first-place team would typically want with 10 games remaining in its regular season. The Leafs played without injured forwards Zach Hyman (sprained MCL) and Ilya Mikheyev (undisclosed) on Tuesday night and lost defenceman Zach Bogosian to an undisclosed injury after he caught an edge and smashed into the end boards.

Frederik Andersen is on the road trip and joined teammates Auston Matthews and Joe Thornton for a rollerblade excursion around the Vancouver Seawall, but there’s no indication when he might be ready to play his first game since March 19.

The Leafs will formally welcome trade deadline acquisitions Nick Foligno, Ben Hutton and Stefan Noesen to their group in Winnipeg after satisfying Canadian quarantine requirements and they’ll turn back to Campbell in search of some confidence. He’s cooled off after setting an NHL record by winning his first 11 games of the season, posting a sub-.900 save percentage in five of his last six outings.

“I know he’s a better goaltender than he’s played out of late. He’s shown that for us,” said Keefe. “He’s going to get a chance to go in and play a big game and our group absolutely believes in him. He’s got a chance to go back in and respond.”

Nylander will be there, too.

The Leafs don’t have another skater who uses his edges and gains the offensive blue line with such ease. He and Tavares can be a major X-factor as the games tighten up and opponents focus their defensive efforts on Matthews and Mitch Marner.

You have to believe that’s partly why Keefe chose to handle Monday’s missed meeting so publicly: Nylander is a player he’s consistently needed to push, noting previously that they’ve “had a lot of pretty blunt discussions.”

With the playoffs approaching the coach seized on an opportunity to make a point to his entire group about the importance of attention to detail. And he saw Nylander’s teammates come to his aid in those talks and lobby to forgo scratching him Tuesday.

He played like a guy who knew he had to pick up the tab.

“Yeah obviously you’re sorry. I mean you never miss a meeting on purpose,” said Nylander. “You just want to go out there and play good tonight. The guys knew that I didn’t want to miss it, or intentionally miss it, I was just unaware of the meeting.

“That’s all you can do.”

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