Maple Leafs' coach Sheldon Keefe giving up nothing on Nylander's status for Game 1

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William Nylander is the Maple Leafs’ current ironman. 

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That could change on Saturday night for Game 1 of the Leafs’ first-round series against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden.

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Nylander hasn’t missed a game in the past two seasons — and was the only Leaf to play in all 82 games in 2023-24 — though the status of the star winger remained in question for the best-of-seven opener.

Coach Sheldon Keefe has been tight-lipped with media in Boston regarding Nylander, who did not practise on Friday and was not a participant in the Leafs’ optional morning skate on Saturday.

Keefe’s one-word answer was “nothing” when he was asked about Nylander’s status, and also when he was asked if Nylander was playing in Game 1. 

The injury, which the Leafs have not disclosed, is a rarity for Nylander. Since his rookie season in 2016-17, he has missed games, but those absences were because of a contract dispute in 2018 and illness or health protocols in recent seasons. 

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An injury has not kept Nylander out of the lineup since Nov. 26, 2016, when he missed a home game against Washington because of an upper-body injury.

TSN’s Darren Dreger posted on X on Saturday morning that Nylander could be dealing with a “tweak” but it was not something that Nylander had been playing through in the final games of the season. Subtracting Nylander’s career-high 98 points, including 40 goals, from the lineup is a blow. The Leafs pride themselves on depth, and while Calle Jarnkrok could provide some spark after he missed the final 17 games with a hand injury, there’s no replacement for Nylander.

The Leafs’ top six at practice on Friday were Auston Matthews between Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi, while John Tavares centred Matthew Knies and Mitch Marner.

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Leafs defenceman Timothy Liljegren on Saturday morning was asked about Nylander.

“We’ve had guys step up when players have been out,” Liljegren said. “Hard to replace Willie, obviously, but we got guys stepping up when (others) go down.

“Tough for him, but hopefully he won’t miss too much and he will be back.”

Said Tavares: “It’s not an easy thing to do, playing in 82 games, it’s a grind. You go through a lot physically, mentally, emotionally. He has been that for us as long as I have played with him.”

Ilya Samsonov is expected to start in goal for the Leafs.  

On the Bruins’ side, coach Jim Montgomery wouldn’t identify his starting goalie.

“One of the guys wearing pads,” Montgomery said. 

Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark have been in a rotation in the Boston net, with Ullmark starting two of the final three games of the regular season. In the Bruins’ four wins against the Leafs in 2023-24, Swayman was the goaltender of record in three of them.

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During conversations with a couple of NHL pro scouts this week, we asked which Leafs player could be the X factor for Toronto in the series and got two rather different answers.

“John Tavares,” one scout said. “He has done a great job of accepting where he is at, even going down to the third line at times. 

“There is pride in wearing the C and he is still a good player. Say what you want, he still almost scored 30 goals this season (Tavares had 29 goals) in not as big a role. How many more opportunities is he going to get? I think his pride and competitive nature will take over.”

And this answer from the other scout.

“Bobby McMann,” the scout said. “He is so versatile. He can play a skilled game, he can play a hard game, he can play a nose-to-the-grindstone game, a physical game as well. You’re going to need that in the playoffs. You need the secondary wave for the team to take a step up and I believe he is going to take a step up.”

Whether McMann gets a chance to make an impact remains to be seen. He has been nursing a lower-body injury and he did not practise on Friday either. He is not expected to play in Game 1.

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