William Nylander felt he hadn’t been shooting the puck enough in recent weeks.
His coach agreed — and added the at-times frustrating talent’s skating also wasn’t up to the required level.
That changed in Tuesday’s third period before Nylander took it to another level with more room to manoeuvre.
Nylander collected the puck in his own zone on the game-clinching sequence, gathered speed and beat Panthers centre Carter Verhaeghe wide before tucking his 24th goal of the season inside an outstretched Sergei Bobrovsky’s far post to ignite Scotiabank Arena.
“He’s got the reserve tank like I’ve never seen,” Leafs winger Mitch Marner said. “Finds ways out there, especially in overtime, to give himself space. Turns on the burners.”
Nylander assisted on Auston Matthews’ goal that made it 4-3 late in the second period, missed the net on a penalty shot early in the third and tied it up on a strange play where the puck bounced in off his helmet before those extra-time heroics with the teams playing 3-on-3.
WATCH | Nylander buries OT winner for Leafs:
“A difference-maker,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “That’s more of the type of player he’s been for us all season.”
Nylander’s celebration, however, needs some work after he blew a tire before being mobbed by teammates along the boards.
“A little too fired up,” the Swede, who added an assist, said with a smile as he abruptly ended his scrum with reporters.
Dryden Hunt and Alexander Kerfoot provided the rest of the offence for Toronto (27-11-7).
WATCH | Marner sets new Leafs franchise record:
Matt Murray allowed four goals on eight shots before being replaced by Ilya Samsonov early in the second. Samsonov finished with 11 saves.
Marner added two assists to set a franchise record by registering at least a point in 19 straight home games, passing Darryl Sittler’s mark established in 1977-78.
Aleksander Barkov, with a goal and an assist, Verhaeghe, Anton Lundell and Josh Mahura replied for Florida (21-20-5), which got 32 stops from Bobrovsky and was denied its first three-game winning streak of the season on a night where Toronto got seven power plays.
‘We had the inordinate share of those’
“There will always be penalties you take that you earn and there’s a whole bunch you’re not going to like,” Panthers head coach Paul Maurice said. “I thought we had the inordinate share of those.
“I don’t know what the hell those [referees] were doing.”
Nylander flubbed that penalty shot early in the third, but scored his first of the evening at 5:59 when Marner’s initial effort hit Bobrovsky’s pad and caromed in off his head before bagging the winner.
“We don’t have a lot of quit in this locker room,” Marner said. “We knew we had to give our best push.”
Leading 3-2 after the first, the Panthers chased Murray on their eighth shot on a power play 1:44 in the second when Barkov scored his 12th.
“Have to be better,” the Toronto netminder said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Things boiled over with four minutes left in the period when Nick Cousins went after Matthews with three straight cross-checks.
“Teams like to play us physical,” Matthews said. “That’s perfectly fine, things will get chippy. It’s hockey.”
Leafs dealing with illness in locker room
Toronto’s power play — booed earlier in the period — connected right before the intermission to make it 4-3 when Matthews snapped his 22nd on Bobrovsky, who made 28 stops in Monday’s 4-1 victory over Buffalo, with Radko Gudas off for a charge that had Maurice shaking his head.
The Panthers, who started the day four points below the playoff cutline after winning last season’s Presidents’ Trophy, opened the scoring at 1:52 of the first when Verhaeghe ripped his 21st.
Coming off consecutive road losses to division rivals Detroit and Boston, the Leafs tied it 46 seconds later when Hunt tapped home his third.
The Leafs drew even again when Kerfoot shovelled home his seventh at 15:10 on a man advantage only to watch the visitors head to the intermission up one when Mahura blasted his fourth at 18:04.
“Heck of a job to battle back,” Matthews said. “The game had a little bit of everything.”
The Leafs have been dealing with an illness in the locker room over the last week. Matthews sat out Thursday, while fellow forwards Bobby McMann and Pontus Holmberg missed Saturday. McMann returned to the lineup Tuesday. Holmberg and defenceman Rasmus Sandin, who both were sidelined at Monday’s practice, took part in the optional morning skate, but didn’t dress.
The Maple Leafs host the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday.
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