It may have been sloppy hockey at times Saturday night but one thing the game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers never was was dull.
Every time one team looked like it was ready to take charge, the other came back in what turned out to be the kind of scorefest you get between two young, fast teams. This held true until the last minute of the third period when Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul scored with 31 seconds left to send the game into overtime.
The thrills and spills continued in the extra session when the Oilers coughed up the puck at the Leafs blueline to create a three-on-one rush. Leaf centre Dave Bolland finished off a three-way passing play 2 minutes, 9 seconds into overtime to give the Leafs a see-saw 6-5 win.
Bolland’s heroics spoiled the return of Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins to his former employer. Until the last few minutes of the third period, it looked like the long-time head coach of the Leafs’ Toronto Marlies farm team would get the win but the sloppy defence went the wrong way at the wrong time for him.
Eakins said he was sure both he and his Maple Leafs counterpart, Randy Carlyle, had a few more grey hairs after a game like that. But it was the sort of game you get when you are the new coach trying to teach a young team to play defensively.
“It was a great learning point for our defence,” Eakins said. “It’s part of the renovation, it’s something we have to clean up.
“We’re not going change what we do. We need better habits. It’s the basics of the game: We need better sticks, better recognition of danger, all those things. But for the most part, I thought we did a great job in the defensive zone.”
Carlyle didn’t like the game much, either, but he was just as philosophical as his former colleague about it.
“I said that my teeth are going to be ground down by the 20-game mark if we continue to play the way we did tonight as far as exchanging chances and mistakes,” he said. “Hey, that’s hockey, and it’s early in the season and I’m sure we’ll see a few more like this. We just feel fortunate to be on the extra-point end of it.”
Until Lupul scored his second goal of the game, it looked like the hero was going to be Captain Canada, who is in his 20 NHL season. Ryan Smyth, 37, looked as good as he ever did while wearing either Canada’s colours in an international hockey tournament or the Oilers’, as he scored his second goal of the game midway through the third period to put the Oilers up 5-4.
Just before Smyth scored, it looked like the Leafs were finally going to take charge of the game. James van Riemsdyk, who was telling reporters earlier this week just how much he liked the shallower nets this season because they make wraparound goals easier, demonstrated as much on his second goal of the game to tie the score 4-4. But that did not last long thanks to Smyth.
It was not a game any of the three groups on the ice would put on their resumes. Both the Leafs and Oilers were sloppy by turns with the referees getting into the act as well. There were a few mystifying penalty calls, including a holding call on van Riemsdyk late in the first period that gave the Oilers a 5-on-3 man advantage they used to tie the score 2-2.
Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier saw some of his magic wear off in the first 25 minutes of the game, as he surrendered three goals by the 1:02 mark of the second period on seven shots. For the first time, Bernier did not seem to be aware of where the puck was on a few occasions, especially on the Oilers’ third goal early in the second. He lost sight of the puck when it went behind the net and was left lying in his crease, frantically trying to slide a leg back to the right post when Oiler forward Boyd Gordon popped a feed from David Perron into the open net to give the visitors a 3-2 lead.
However, Bernier settled down in the second period and late in the third, with the Oilers holding a 5-4 lead, he saved the game for the Leafs. Bernier dove across his crease to rob Mark Arcobello with a glove save that kept the Leafs in position to force overtime.
“You know what? We had some breakdowns that led to goals,” van Riemsdyk said. “There was not much [Bernier] could do about a few of those. That [save] was incredible, yeah. He never gives up on the puck. Arcobellow was looking up at the rafters after that.”
The Oilers had defensive problems of their own, particularly a tendency to leave the slot wide open for the Leafs. They got away with it once in the first when Leaf rookie Josh Leivo hit the post. When they did it again in the second period, though, Nazem Kadri and Lupul pounced on the chance. Kadri, who scored in the first period on a seeing-eye shot, made a nifty backhand pass into the slot where Lupul was standing with no Oiler player within 20 feet of him. He ripped a one-time shot past goaltender Devan Dubnyk at 5:20 to tie the score 3-3, where it stood for the rest of the period.
The Oilers took the lead again early in the third period. Jordan Eberle finished a two-on-one rush with Arcobello by beating Bernier to the top corner on his glove hand to put the Oilers ahead 4-3. Taylor Hall, who was a dangerous presence all evening with linemate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, got his second assist of the game on that goal.
After Smyth opened the scoring with a first-period deflection, Kadri and van Riemsdyk scored for the Leafs to grab the lead. But Nugent-Hopkins scored on that 5-on-3 power play to see the first period finish at 2-2.
One surprise at the start of the game was Eakins’ decision to scratch budding star forward Nail Yakupov. It was the first time this happened to the second-year Oiler but he was still looking for his first point after four games.
“I think Yak will tell you the same thing, he hasn’t been up to speed,” Eakins said. “He’s been out of sorts. The kid has such a great passion for the game. He’s going to be an excellent player in this league.
“But rather than let this keep going on, the struggle become deeper and deeper, I thought it was time to press the reset button and get him out of the lineup and let him watch a game. I’ve always found it’s a great way to get a new perspective on the game when you’re struggling.”
Follow me on Twitter: @dshoalts