TORONTO (AP) — Nikita Soshnikov held the puck on his backhand before flinging it between Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss’ pads. The 22-year-old rookie, taking the first shootout attempt of his NHL career, scored the only goal of the tiebreaker to lift the Toronto Maple Leafs to a 4-3 victory over the New York Islanders on Wednesday night.
Soshnikov was one of three rookies to shine for Toronto as 19-year-old William Nylander got the tying goal late in regulation and 23-year-old Zach Hyman also scored.
“First couple games you’re obviously a little bit star-struck because this is what you’ve been dreaming of since you were little,” Hyman said. “But once you settle in you realize that they’re just hockey players as well and you feel you can compete against them.”
Morgan Rielly also scored in regulation and Garret Sparks stopped 24 shots in his second straight start for the Maple Leafs, who had lost six in a row (0-5-1) — including the last five by one goal. Toronto also won for just the third time in 16 games (3-11-2).
It was the first game the Leafs won since recalling the three youngsters (as well as the recently re-assigned Kasperi Kapanen) from the Toronto Marlies of the AHL last week for a helpful glimpse into the future for coach Mike Babcock.
Toronto’s 44 losses are more than Babcock had in any of his previous 12 NHL seasons.
“My mindset, is it different? Yes, “ Babcock said Wednesday morning. “On the off days you can think about big-term picture and all that, on game days let’s win a game.”
Nylander helped make that happen.
The Maple Leafs celebrate forward William Nylander’s game-tying goal.
With his father and former NHL center Michael Nylander in attendance, the former eighth-overall pick pushed home a rebound past Greiss with 1:13 left in regulation, tying the score 3-3.
The Leafs head coach felt it was the finest game of the younger Nylander’s career “by a mile”.
Babcock would have preferred not to have Nylander playing center in first tour of the NHL, but was forced to because of injuries. He believed Nylander to be more engaged on Wednesday night, skating forcefully for the first time.
Soshnikov and Hyman have impressed from the start.
“They’re real players, they’re going to play,” Babcock said. “They’re just too good and too hard and too fast and too much work ethic. Those guys will play.”
An undrafted free agent signing by the Leafs last spring, Soshnikov has scored twice in his first six NHL games, pounding out 21 hits along the way. He picked up the shootout move he used against the Islanders from former Calgary Flames prospect Yiri Trubachev when the two played together in the KHL.
Soshnikov has employed the move in the AHL this season. Hyman, a teammate previously with the Marlies, knew it was coming and told veteran teammates Brooks Laich and Ben Smith as much on the bench.
Nikita Soshnikov scores the game-winning shootout goal past goalie Thomas Greiss.
“He’s not intimidated by anything,” Babcock said. “He plays against good players. He plays with speed. He plays without the puck. He’s hard. Looks like he can score. He’s good.”
John Tavares, Nick Leddy, and Ryan Strome scored for the Islanders, and Thomas Greiss finished with 33 saves. New York snapped a four-game winning streak and fell to 11-2-2 in its last 15.
Tavares opened the scoring with a breakaway goal early in the first, his 25th goal this season.
Hyman shovelled a rebound past Greiss to knot the score at 1-1 midway through the first. He managed a similar marker two days earlier against the Buffalo Sabres for his first NHL goal.
Rielly gave the Leafs their first lead midway through the second, beating Greiss with a power-play goal from high in the slot.
Leddy tied it with just more than 7 minutes remaining in the second, going end-to-end with the puck before beating Sparks with a wrist shot. Strome gave the Islanders a 3-2 lead with 5:19 remaining in the third period, his shot trickling between Sparks’ pads before crossing the goal line.
Earlier in the day, the Islanders announced No. 1 goalie Jaroslav Halak would miss six weeks with a lower-body injury. Greiss is likely to draw the bulk of starts in his absence.
The Islanders remained three points behind the New York Rangers for second place in the Metropolitan Division with two games in hand.
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