Even in a season subdued by COVID-19, and in a city in the midst of a hard lockdown, Wednesday’s encounter between the Maple Leafs and the Oilers still promised panache. The first of nine matchups between two of the game’s brightest stars – Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Toronto’s Auston Matthews – was televised nationally in Canada and the United States, where sports may have been overshadowed for the day by another event.
It was expected to be a track meet with plenty of thrills. Instead, it turned into a plodding and tightly played affair. At times, both teams struggled to get the puck beyond the neutral zone. Edmonton had a hard time early on simply getting shots at the net.
The Oilers arrived in Toronto not with a swagger but with their tires leaking and engine sputtering. They had suffered two successive losses to Montreal, three defeats in four games, and were near the bottom of the NHL’s new all-Canadian North Division.
They emerged with a tough 3-1 victory. Leon Draisaitl had the game winner, his first goal of the season, on a power play with 12:29 left in the third period. He had 43 goals and led the league with 110 points last year. Kailer Yamamoto was credited with a goal in the first period on a shot the Maple Leafs put in their own net.
“Sometimes it is the boring games that are more solid,” Draisaitl said. “It is a huge win for us, and more the way we want to play. You can’t play a run and gun with that team. They just have too much skill.”
Matthews tied it for Toronto in the third by squeezing a shot past Edmonton goalie Mikko Koskinen from in close.
The 6-foot-7 Finn had struggled over the first four games but was solid in this start. He stopped 25 of the 26 shots he faced in his first victory over the Maple Leafs in four tries.
“He was real solid,” Dave Tippett, the Oilers coach, said. “You want him to give your team a chance to win, and that is what he did.”
It was Edmonton’s first road game since March, and unlike any other it has taken. Players wore masks during Tuesday’s nearly four-hour cross-country flight. There were no card games. Once in Toronto there was nothing to do and nobody to see.
“I love coming [here] " McDavid, who grew up in nearby Newmarket, Ont., said during a virtual call with journalists hours before the puck drop. “It is always a bit of a homecoming. I get to visit friends and family but can’t do that now. My brother [Cameron] is three minutes away, and I can’t see him.”
McDavid had assists on two of the Oilers three goals.
The game was a homecoming of sorts for Tyson Barrie. The Edmonton defenceman played last season for the Maple Leafs and is now the quarterback of a power-play unit that a year ago was the most lethal in the league. He texted some of former teammates in hopes of meeting them for dinner, but a highly transmissible virus made it impossible.
“It was not in the cards,” Barrie said.
Edmonton entered the game having converted only two of 18 chances with a man advantage, one of several reasons for its slow start. Koskinen had struggled and the Oilers were losing too many puck battles.
Zack Kassian returned to the lineup after missing one game because of the birth of his second daughter. In the afternoon, Edmonton coach Dave Tippett complained that Kassian has neither been aggressive enough nor physical enough, the two things that make him valuable.
“I had a talk to him this morning about that,” Tippett said. “He knows he can play better. He has had lots going on in his life the last couple of days. He needs to get back to playing the way he can.”
Kassian was more active than he has been and nearly scored late when a shot by him clanked off the cross bar during a 3 on 1.
The Oilers went 0 for 7 on the power play in Monday’s loss and misfired on their first two opportunities against Toronto. At times they looked disorganized. Passes went awry. They eventually snuck one in, thanks to Draisaitl.
The first period was mostly played in Edmonton’s end, which limited the Oilers’ chances.
Koskinen made a nice stop on a hard wrist shot from 20 feet away by Morgan Rielly on the first real chance of the game. Then the Oilers went ahead after Yamamoto won a battle behind the net, flipped a pass in front and had it bounce off the right skate of Toronto’s Jake Muzzin and trickle past goalie Frederik Andersen.
It was an ugly goal but Edmonton went to the dressing room with a 1-0 lead. The Oilers had only three shots on net to the Maple Leafs’ eight.
“Those are the bounces you need over the course of the year,” Draisaitl said. “Every team gets them. I think we deserved them tonight.”
The second period was much of the same. The teams traded unsuccessful power play chances. The Oilers lost the lead in the third, went back ahead on Draisaitl’s goal and added an empty-netter with 1:06 left by the feisty Josh Archibald. The slight forward entered the game leading the NHL with 16 hits and added six more.
Overall, Edmonton outshot Toronto 26-22, blocked 19 shots to the Maple Leafs’ six, and had 25 hits to their 20.
The teams play again at Scotiabank Arena on Friday night. They have four against each other in a period of 10 days. Perhaps the McDavid-Matthews battle will be better then.
This was a deliberately played game, and produced a victory the Oilers needed badly.
“We’ll take the win,” Tippett said. “It’s a step in the right direction. Now we have another big one [on Friday] and need to do it again.”