Nikita Soshnikov wasn't scared. Or so he said and looked in the first shootout attempt of his NHL career.
The Maple Leafs' exciting 22-year-old rookie held the puck on his backhand before flinging it between the pads of Islanders goaltender Thomas Greiss. It was the shootout winner in a 4-3 Toronto victory, one that helped the club avoid a season-long seven-game losing streak.
The Leafs had lost six straight coming into the night, including the last five by a single goal.
Soshnikov was one of three rookies to shine for the club in the victory, just the sixth in the past 28 games for the Leafs (6-18-4). Nineteen-year-old William Nylander scored the game-tying goal in the dying minutes of regulation while 23-year-old Zach Hyman also found the back of the net for the second time in as many games.
"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."
It was the first game the Leafs have won since recalling the three youngsters (as well as the recently re-assigned Kasperi Kapanen) from the Toronto Marlies last week and a helpful glimpse into the future for Leafs head coach Mike Babcock.
With father and former NHL centre Michael Nylander in attendance at the Air Canada Centre, the former eighth-overall pick pushed home a rebound past Greiss with 1:13 left in regulation, tying the score at three.
The Leafs head coach felt it was the finest game of his young career "by a mile."
Soshnikov and Hyman have impressed from the start.
'They're real players'
"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 of the Leafs last spring, Soshnikov has scored twice in his first six NHL games, pounding out 21 hits along the way. His electric shootout move against the Islanders came from the arsenal of former Calgary Flames prospect Yiri Trubachev, whom Soshnikov briefly played with in the KHL.
'He's not intimidated by anything. He plays with speed. He plays without the puck. He's hard. Looks like he can score. He's good.' - Leafs head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday's shootout hero Nikita Soshnikov
Soshnikov has employed the move in the AHL this season. Hyman, a teammate previously with the Marlies, knew it was coming and told veteran NHLers Brooks Laich and Ben Smith as much on the bench.
"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."
Hyman, formerly of Michigan University and a Florida Panthers draft pick traded to Toronto last summer, shovelled a rebound past Greiss to knot the score at one midway through the first frame. He managed a similar marker two days earlier against the Buffalo Sabres for his first NHL goal.
John Tavares opened the scoring on a breakaway, the two teams trading goals right up until Nylander's game-tying marker late in regulation. Celebrating his 22nd birthday, Morgan Rielly also scored for the Leafs while Nick Leddy and Ryan Strome joined the scoresheet for New York.
Another one-goal loss would have been the sixth straight for Toronto, a franchise record that was ultimately avoided.