Until a Canadian club wins the Stanley Cup again – this being the 30th anniversary season of the last one – March’s Edmonton – Toronto regular season set will have to suffice as the unofficial national playdowns.
The two teams, which rank among the top 10 of just about every NHL category that matters, complete two games in 11 days on Saturday at Scotiabank Arena. The Oilers, with Connor McDavid tearing up the scoring derby, won the first meeting at home, a 5-2 final that quickly quieted a horde of Leaf fans.
Toronto knows it can’t repeat that clumsy start, putting McDavid and the league’s top power play to work before the game was four minutes old and down 3-1 after the first period.
A locked-in McDavid showed the same kind of intense glare that Rocket Richard used to save for high stakes games, such as when his Canadiens met the Leafs in Original Six feuds. This is also McDavid’s first ‘Hockey Night In Canada’ start in his native GTA, on the ice well ahead of mates at SBA on Friday with his game face.
“He’s in a class of his own,” said Leaf centre Auston Matthews after his side’s Friday’s workout at the practice hub.
“What he’s doing is pretty insane and we get to witness it,” added linemate Mitch Marner. “But obviously when you’re out there, you don’t want to be giving him that time and space.”
Matthews will likely be passing the goal trophy named for Richard back to McDavid this spring as the Oiler ace is at 54 and counting.
“We have to do a better job of controlling the neutral zone, always easier said than done considering who you’re going up against,” commented Toronto captain John Tavares. “That’s the challenge and we have to meet it.
“Special teams will be a key factor, staying out of the box. They got one early, an unfortunate break (newcomer defenceman Jake McCabe for a chop that broke an Oiler’s stick) and when we get called upon, just execute.”
McCabe felt awful about that call, barely into his first game since being acquired from Chicago with forward Sam Lafferty as part of six acquisitions the Leafs made before going West during their longest trip of the year.
“Things were definitely in flux that night, but I don’t think that had anything to do with our performance out there,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe of chastising a few veterans. “But the more time that passes, I think our group will come together. (Tuesday’s win in) New Jersey was a good indication of that and the way guys stepped up, Lafferty in particular.”
The Oilers are coming off another buoyant performance, 3-2 against league-leading Boston on Thursday. McDavid’s success, along with Leon Draisaitl, ex-Leaf Zach Hyman and their own trade jewel Mattias Ekholm, have pumped them on this Eastern swing.
Hyman and goalie Jack Campbell will likely be acknowledged by their former team Saturday as well.
In the 10 days since Edmonton beat them – with a full 48 hours off since the cross-continent trek finally ended – the Leafs should be better at home with last line change. However, forward Ryan O’Reilly broke a finger during the trip and defenceman Luke Schenn has been with his wife in Vancouver where she was close to giving birth.
Friday was the first time McCabe and Lafferty had practiced in Toronto, following two complete days off, during which they stopped in Chicago to gather clothes and be with family.
“They’ve got things dialled in here for sure, a well-oiled machine,” an impressed McCabe said of his first day at the Ford Centre. “Being on the road was the perfect time to jo a team because you’re around them all the time. But good to finally get here.”
Some notable numbers between Maple Leafs and Oilers in the league’s top 10:
Toronto 39 (4th)
Edmonton 36 (6th)
Goals for per games played
Edm. 3.85 (1st)
Tor. 3.38 (9th)
Goals for 5-on-5
Edm. 150 (5th)
Tor. 142 (T-7th)
First period goals
Edm. 68 (4th)
Tor. 67 (T-5th)
Second period goals
Edm. 104 (1st)
Tor. 83 (7th)
Edm. 31.6% (1st)
Tor. 25.4% (3rd)
Edm. 590 (5th)
Tor. 576 (7th)
Edm. 651 (3rd)
Tor. 632 (T-4th)
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