It may have been just one game, but it spoke volumes as to where the Toronto Maple Leafs were at, a little more than a year ago.
In their last visit to the Air Canada Centre, the Edmonton Oilers rolled into town in December of 2010 and rolled over the home team, winning 5-0 in a loss that had the Leafs faithful chanting for their coach’s head by the third period.
Fourteen months later and Ron Wilson isn’t going anywhere.
And his team appears closer to its first playoff berth in eight years than ever.
Wilson’s Leafs returned the favour to the Oilers in a 6-3 win on Monday night, improving to 10-4-1 in 2012 and moving to within four points of having home-ice advantage in Round 1.
After an up-and-down start to the season, Toronto has suddenly found its game, even as the Oilers continue to wallow at the bottom of the standings.
Edmonton is now 15 points behind the Leafs and miles from their own return to the postseason.
The plucky Oilers, however, entered Monday’s game on a 4-0-1 run after beating some of the league’s top teams and appeared to get the upper hand on Toronto early when Jordan Eberle scored just 21 seconds in.
From there, however, defence was merely optional for both teams – especially for an Edmonton team trying to find its way in its own end.
“That's what Edmonton wants you to do,” Wilson said. “Get into a back-and-forth, coast-to-coast game. And it's hard to not listen to the Pied Piper. He'll bring you over the cliff if you're not careful.”
“We were trading chances a bit there,” Leafs centre Tyler Bozak added. “It's not the way we want to play.”
Clarke MacArthur and Jake Gardiner replied for Toronto for an early 2-1 lead, before Eberle struck yet again – this time on a beautiful, three-way passing play – to tie things heading to the second.
In the middle frame, the Leafs rang up three more goals past beleaguered Oilers netminder Devan Dubnyk, with all three members of their top line scoring to give them a 5-3 lead going into the third period.
So much for Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul’s January slump.
"That fifth goal was the killer," Oilers winger Taylor Hall said. "We had spurts there in the second period where we just didn’t play well enough and their top line and their second line played very well tonight and they kind of shoved it down our throats a little bit."
As it was a year ago, the game was also a terrific showcase of Edmonton’s young talent, with their top line of Eberle, Hall and Sam Gagner buzzing around the Leafs zone much of the night.
What it also showed, however, was the Oilers alarming issues in their own zone and in goal – the very same ones they’ve been dealing the past couple of years en route to their current rebuild.
Last season, this matchup was a battle of two of the NHL’s basement dwellers, and the Oilers win put them two points up on Toronto in the standings with both teams firmly in lottery draft territory.
That was likely one of the low points of Wilson’s tenure with the team – a loss that drew plenty of handwringing over the state of GM Brian Burke’s rebuild on the fly – but a little more than a season later, it’s Toronto with a hefty 15-point lead in the standings and a playoff berth in sight.
The Leafs have, in other words, finally begun to climb the mountain to respectability. Edmonton, meanwhile, simply remains a team with potential – albeit a lot of the very high end variety.
Wilson, meanwhile, remains as safe as ever – something his players believe is more warranted than the heckling of a year ago.
“They go from booing him and now he has an extension and our team’s playing well,” Leafs winger Colby Armstrong said. “You take all those [losses] with you to where we are at this time of the year. It’s funny how things change. We were always a group with a lot of potential – hopefully we can just keep getting better and better.”
Of late, the Leafs have certainly managed that.
The Oilers? They’re already playing for next season – and hoping these losses begin to pay off down the line.
Grabovski stays hot
The Leafs first two goals came at least in part to some nice work by centre Mikhail Grabovski, who picked up the first assist on both tallies to extend his points streak to six games.
Over that span, he has 12 points (three goals, nine assists) to lead Toronto and has been playing a key role defensively against other team's top lines.
Grabovski, who now has 20 points in the Leafs last 15 games, spent two-thirds of his ice time Monday on against Hall, Gagner and Eberle.
"I think it was important [to answer] because the first shift, they scored against our line," Grabovski said. "I think if our line works hard like tonight, we can keep winning games."
Nugent-Hopkins reinjures shoulder
The Oilers received bad news on the injury front on Monday, as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins left early in the third period and didn’t return.
The Oilers rookie was hurt when Leafs winger Mike Brown hit him near the boards with a legal check.
The team announced after the game that the rookie had aggravated a shoulder injury that kept him out of almost all of January and may threaten his bid for the Calder Trophy.
Oilers assistant coach Ralph Krueger said Nugent-Hopkins was taken out of the game only as a precaution and will be assessed on Tuesday.
“We wanted to be safe on him,” Krueger said.
Toronto wasn’t kind to the Oilers on the injury front. Head coach Tom Renney was unable to coach on Monday after he took a puck to the head and received stitches in the morning skate.
"We really just wanted to win for him after taking one in the face," Eberle said.Report Typo/Error