The Maple Leafs manufactured one of their greatest escapes of the season with Saturday’s overtime triumph against the Oilers. The victory benefited from a dash of luck, but it was easily the most enjoyable of the eight games thus far between division opponents.
Toronto has maintained the upper hand in the season series, which concludes Monday night at Scotiabank Arena. At least twice the Maple Leafs have turned back the Oilers as they nipped at the heels of the leader in the NHL’s all-Canadian detachment. If Edmonton had not blown a late two-goal lead, it would be tied for first place with Toronto and Winnipeg with a little more than five weeks left in the COVID-19-abbreviated regular season.
A shot by Auston Matthews ended Saturday’s 4-3 encounter in extra time spoiled a masterful performance by the Oilers’ Mike Smith. Matthews’s NHL-leading 22nd goal was unlikely to go in until it ricocheted off Darnell Nurse’s skate past the Edmonton goalkeeper.
Earlier, Toronto scored on a goal by Pierre Engvall that deflected off Nurse’s stick, flew straight up into the air like an infield pop-up and landed on top of Smith’s helmet before it bounced into the net.
Those two negated several of the saves Smith made on Matthews from point-blank range. One sprawling nab left the Maple Leafs’ star centre staring at Smith as he pondered how it had not eluded him.
Toronto is 6-1-1 against Edmonton and because of it could hoist the Oilers into a fight with Winnipeg for second place. Four teams from the North Division will make the playoffs; Montreal has a comfortable grip on the other slot. The Canadiens have just a two-point lead over Calgary, but have played five fewer games than the Flames.
The razzle and the dazzle that was expected during these numerous engagements between the high-octane Maple Leafs and Oilers finally came to fruition on Saturday night. Most of it was supplied by Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who combined for a goal and five points.
It was not so much that they tallied them, but how: with wicked no-look passes that really aren’t fair to anyone daring enough to don goalie pads, grab a paddle and climb into a net.
McDavid never looked away from Toronto goalie Jack Campbell as he slipped a pass across to Draisaitl for the latter’s 19th goal of the year. Without even looking, Draisaitl later fed Tyson Barrie as the defenceman barrelled in close and buried it into the corner as Campbell flailed about helplessly.
Campbell, who has been terrific in place of starter Frederik Andersen, blamed himself.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it, I just didn’t have it tonight,” he said.
He was being overly critical of himself. Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur could have joined him in the crease and the three of them still would not have had a chance.
There is something magical about hockey when elite players accomplish these things so seemingly seamlessly, in this case before a national television audience on Hockey Night in Canada. It more than made up for the telecast’s dopey introduction in which Toronto fan Max Kerman of the Arkells and country musician Brett Kissel, an Edmonton supporter, prattled on about why each’s favourite team would win. There was even a cringe-worthy bet between them.
Toronto got goals in the third from John Tavares and William Nylander to knot the score. Then Matthews’s shot pinballed around until it went in, leaving the Oilers frustrated again. They have lost four in a row to Toronto and looked to at least have Saturday night’s game in hand.
“We have been in tight games where we have done a good job and closed them out,” said Barrie, who played for the Maple Leafs in 2019-20. “Certainly that wasn’t the case tonight. They wanted it more and had their way at the end.
“It is just disappointing. It is the nature of the sport. We want results.”
There is just one more between them, at least until the playoffs. One more night to buckle in and brace one’s self for McDraisaitl and the Matthews and Mitch Marner show.
Matthews’s winning goal was his league-high eighth of the season and the 31st of his career. The only player with more since Matthews entered the NHL is McDavid. He has 34. McDavid is also only one goal in arrears for the NHL lead. McDavid and Draisaitl are running away from everyone when it comes to points.
“They are two pretty good players,” Jake Muzzin, the Toronto defenceman, said Sunday. “When you put them together, it’s a lot.”
With that, he laughed a what-can-you-do laugh.
This is what fans imagined when this season was drawn up. Too often the games between Toronto and Edmonton have lacked the drama that was expected. Until Saturday at least.