Connor McDavid. Auston Matthews. Leon Draisaitl. Mitch Marner. Four of the NHL’s top five scorers will meet three times in the next five days in a convergence of streaking players and teams.
The Oilers have won 11 of their past 13 to climb within four points of the Maple Leafs for first place in the NHL’s all-Canadian North Division. Toronto went 7-2-1 in January and has gone 8-2-1 since. These are rising teams with shooting stars, and they play the first of three successive games in Edmonton on Saturday night.
In a season with a new alignment, they play nine times. Usually, they only meet twice. So far, each team has beaten the other twice.
“I think this is a huge three games,” Darnell Nurse, the Edmonton defenceman, said Friday. “When you look at the standings, It goes without saying how much they mean.”
McDavid and Matthews, who worked out together in the offseason, are the talk of the league.
McDavid leads the scoring race with 40 points through 22 games. Matthews is first with 18 goals in 20. That is a pace that could net him a remarkable 50 in a campaign shortened by COVID-19.
Matthews, who has been bothered all season by a wrist injury, was chosen the NHL’s first star after scoring seven goals and accruing 12 points in four games last week. McDavid was the second star with three goals and six assists in three games. Included in that was a hat trick and a five-point effort in a victory over Calgary.
Matthews did not practise on Friday and is considered day to day. Head coach Sheldon Keefe said the 23-year-old centre is not ruled out for Saturday, and his inclusion in the lineup will come down to a game-time decision. If he does not play, Matthews would likely return for the engagements at Rogers Place on Monday and Wednesday.
Draisaitl, who last season won the Art Ross Trophy as the leading point scorer in the NHL, the Hart Memorial Trophy as regular-season MVP and the Ted Lindsay Award for most outstanding player, is second in the NHL in scoring with 34 points. Matthews is tied for third with 31, and Marner is fifth with 30.
The teams have each won twice in their first four meetings. Matthews missed one, but had a goal in each of the other three. McDavid has three goals and four assists and has played in every game.
“Each has been difficult, and we expect more of the same,” Keefe said Friday. “Edmonton is playing as good or better than any team in the league. We recognize how great a challenge it will be for us.”
For Toronto, Joe Thornton, Jake Muzzin, Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell will all probably return from injuries during the series. Andersen, the starting goalie, and Campbell, his backup, were both on the ice Friday before the team’s four-hour charter flight from Toronto to northern Alberta.
“I am feeling great and ready to go for sure,” said Campbell, who missed nearly a month with a leg injury.
Edmonton is expected to start Mike Smith in goal on Saturday. The 38-year-old shut out Vancouver on Thursday and is 6-0 with a .944 save percentage. The Oilers’ run up the standings has largely coincided with him coming back from an undisclosed injury.
After being signed as a backup, Smith replaced Mikko Koskinen in the Stanley Cup play-in tournament last fall, just as he had bumped David Rittich out of the starting slot in Calgary during the 2019 playoffs.
“We are finding ways to win and that is going to be valuable down the stretch,” Smith said after making 32 saves against the Canucks. “I feel we have really taken a step in the right direction here. This team is gaining confidence every day we are together. There is a different feeling in the locker room. There is a bit of a swagger.”
The Oilers are playing better on defence than they have in years. In a departure from the past, they are also getting ample scoring from secondary sources. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has nine goals and 10 assists. Tyson Barrie has shaken off a tough year in Toronto and has three goals and 15 assists while quarterbacking Edmonton’s potent power play. Nurse and Jesse Puljujarvi have six goals each. Kailer Yamamoto has five and Dominik Kahun and Alex Chiasson have four.
“It is kind of contagious,” McDavid said Friday. “You see one line do it and then the next one wants to do it, too. It rolls over like that.”
The teams seem evenly matched. Marner is second on Toronto with nine goals. William Nylander has seven and John Tavares six. Zach Hyman, Jason Spezza and Alexander Kerfoot each has four.
The Maple Leafs started fast and have played consistently at a high level. Edmonton started poorly, but has dug itself out of an early 3-6 hole.
“We need no more motivation than to look at the standings,” Keefe said this week. “We are off to an excellent start, but [we’re] a bad week away from people catching [us]. By no means are we comfortable. We reinforce that message every day.
“Every point remaining in the division is important. We have to be at our best all of the time.”
Matthews has 21 points in 11 games during February. He had a 16-game point streak come to an end in a loss to Calgary on Monday, but rebounded with assists on both of Nylander’s goals in a 2-1 victory over the Flames on Wednesday.
“When I think of a guy with a dangerous shot, the first person that comes to mind is Auston,” his teammate Morgan Rielly said. “He is at the top of the list, no question about it.”
These next three games are critical for both teams. And it would not be a surprise if Matthews and McDavid are the difference makers.
[Connor] is the best player in the world,” said his teammate, Josh Archibald. “It’s fun to watch him, let alone play with him. The guy can skate like the wind but, at the same time, his hands are as fast as his feet.”