The Maple Leafs gave up the lead twice but found a way to win over the Oilers on Thursday night.
First period dominance by Toronto yielded way to sloppy play as Edmonton clawed their way back from 3-1 and 4-3 down before a bizarre Kris Russell own-goal secured the win for the Leafs.
Your game in ten:
1. The first period was a continuation of the four-line performance from Tuesday night’s win over the Flames. Toronto took a 3-1 lead into the intermission on the back of a strong 57 CF% showing. The Oilers are a team in disarray and are now without their starting goaltender, and they certainly looked the part early. Yet Edmonton found their way back into the game, improving their possession in each period and securing a 4-4 tie before Russell won it for the Leafs in the dying moments of the game.
2. The season is far from over, but it has thus far been a disaster for an Oilers team that had high expectations. Edmonton serves as a reminder that rebuilds don’t always unfold in a linear upward trajectory and no one is guaranteed success, even with a ridiculous amount of young talent. The wrong moves by management in an attempt to put a team over the top can have devastating consequences. Enough similarities exist between the two markets in terms of pressure from the media and fans that one could picture a similar tragedy unfolding in this city. Thankfully, there has not been the same shortsightedness out of Leafs management, who seem to understand what the organization has in the likes of Nylander and Marner and have avoided the panic move/overpay to find the stud defender the team (and many others around the league) covets.
3. Speaking of blessings, Auston Matthews is dealing with a cold (he’s “had better days”) but still put up two points and won 75% of his faceoffs on the night. His line had a strong first period before trailing off as the game progressed. Based on Babcock’s answers after the game — mentioning the importance of fast starts and describing the trio’s performance as “still solid” overall — this line likely stays together to begin the game in Vancouver, although there’s no doubting Nylander has earned a return back up the lineup (is four points in two games while averaging 10:39/game any good, or?).
4. While Mitch Marner may be tied with Matt Martin for goals on the season, the improvement in his play of late has been noticeable. The offensive results are still lacking, but Marner is at his best when he attacks the o-zone with speed and confidence. On the Leafs first powerplay of the night, a spinorama to enter the zone before dishing the puck is the confidence to make plays that we’re used to seeing from Marner. Babcock took his confidence-boosting efforts public earlier in the day, referencing that both Marner and Nylander had similar point paces at this juncture in the 2016-17 season. While this rings truer for Nylander than it does Marner, one has to think the dam will burst soon for the talented winger based on the fact that he’s had the puck on his stick lots and is making plays out there.
5. With respect to the powerplay – it was the Matthews unit that struck twice on the night. While the first unit has established itself as a multi-dimensional force, the second one largely runs through Matthews and Nylander. More specifically, when Nylander is on his game he creates a double threat from the right side with either the seam pass to Matthews or his trademark snipe to the short side being extremely dangerous. The Leafs cashed in on both of those plays in this game for their two power play goals. He’s actually only hit the net eight times in his last seven games, but we’ll see if this gets the ball rolling for him in terms of goal production.
6. The Gardiner-Zaitsev pairing had a night they would rather forget. Gardiner’s lackadaisical one-handed effort to clear the puck directly resulted in Edmonton’s first tally. Another Gardiner giveaway and lost coverage by Zaitsev lead to the Zack Kassian marker. Still, the pair finished at around even in CF% on the night with Zaitsev logging a team-high 25:03 as Babcock continues to put his faith in the Russian sophomore as a defensive lynchpin.
7. Babcock also continues to put his faith in Roman Polak. With the Oilers desperate for momentum in their comeback push in the middle frame, back-to-back penalties by Polak were exactly what the doctor ordered for them. The team’s loveable vet was stuck in quicksand as Connor McDavid blew past him, forcing an interference penalty. The fastest player in the league drew a hooking call the second time he waltzed past Polak coming out of the box minutes later. Defending against McDavid is a tough assignment for anyone and this wasn’t exactly the matchup Babcock was looking for. More concerning was the lack of mobility on display by Polak prior to the 4-4 Russell goal, where he looked sluggish and late to arrive on a couple of puck races. I’d lean towards popping Carrick back in the lineup this Saturday against a speedy Canucks team.
8. Much has been made about the coaching staff’s decisions to recently put both Marner and Nylander on the fourth line. So nobody should be surprised that this line has been at its most effective in the last handful of games. The two sophomores may be in the media’s “doghouse” but they are also facing weaker competition and getting some confidence-boosting production as a result. The fourth line scored two of the goals in the first period, with the second coming on a pretty passing play. It started with a Nylander steal at the blue line and ended with a Martin tap-in courtesy of a heads-up pass by Dominic Moore, who earlier in the period sniped short-side on Laurent Brossoit for his fourth goal of the year. Does anyone think Martin or Moore are complaining about the “demotions”?
9. A small scare in the second period as Ron Hainsey’s leg buckled under a Milan Lucic shot, directly preceding the McDavid goal (it was either that or the cumulative weight of all of this team’s shorthanded minutes becoming too much for him to bear). Babcock matched Rielly and Hainsey as much as he could against McDavid with about 12 minutes of even-strength time spent against #97 and his line. They kept him in check relatively well — the one goal came after Hainsey was taken out of the play by a shot to the back of the leg (he probably ties up McDavid if not), and they finished with a 52% CF against McDavid’s line. This continues to be the most reliable pairing for the Maple Leafs night in and night out.
10. The Leafs will look to sweep this Western Canada road trip in Vancouver on Saturday night. A pointed focus on strong starts has served them well thus far on the trip. But they will need to tidy up their game from the last 40 minutes in Edmonton against a fast Canucks team that has been surprisingly relevant on the backs of young stars such as Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat.