This is the matchup we’ve all been anticipating since the announcement of the Canadian division: McDavid vs. Matthews, episode one of a nine-part series, goes tonight in Toronto (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) January 20, 2021
Tonight is the first time in this young season that the 3-1-0 Maple Leafs are really going to face a formidable dual-threat matchup test — in McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — down the middle of the ice. If Sheldon Keefe sticks to the Alex Kerfoot line taking on the bulk of the secondary matchup, or if he gives John Tavares more of those minutes, is a storyline to monitor in these next two games vs. EDM (and if it doesn’t go the Leafs way early, how does Keefe adjust the lines/assignments?).
To date, we’ve seen Matthews take on the bulk of the head-to-head matchups, and Kerfoot and Tavares split the secondary matchup, with a little more of the minutes share against the second-line competition going to Kerfoot’s line, affording Tavares and William Nylander more o-zone starts against weaker competition. The Tavares line generated a goal versus Montreal’s fourth line (Paul Byron – Jake Evans – Artturi Lehkonen) off of an offensive-zone draw — Nylander’s shot from the point — although outside of that, Tavares’ hot start (six points in four games) has largely been driven by the power play (four points) as well as one overtime assist in the win over the Habs. In overall on-ice goal share, the Tavares line is even (2 goals for, 2 goals against) at 5v5.
Looking ahead to the Leafs‘ trip to Calgary this weekend, the Flames may go with Mikael Backlund against Matthews, leaving the Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau line to the Kerfoot or Tavares lines. Over the next four games, we should have a much better feel for how the current Leafs‘ lines/deployment fare against these kinds of matchup headaches, which weren’t as much of a factor versus Ottawa x2, Montreal, and the Jets without Patrik Laine.
As fixated we often are on the center-ice matchups, it obviously takes a five-man effort to defend against a threat like McDavid. Keeping McDavid in his own zone is really the only effective form of defense against him, but it will be important to slow him down through the neutral zone as much as possible so he isn’t breaking the offensive blue line with control and bearing down on the defense at breakneck speed. Smart puck management, and ensuring the Leafs are on point in their transition defense getting back above the puck, are going to be vital against such a formidable quick-strike rush threat.
Facing the guy who is #1 in the NHL at generating chances on the rush, it is going to be the biggest challenge to date for us.
– Sheldon Keefe on Connor McDavid
On the blue line, against the Jets, the TJ Brodie and Morgan Rielly pairing drew the bulk of the Scheifele line; Keefe likely goes with the same approach against McDavid, especially knowing TJ Brodie has logged plenty of time matching up against McDavid over the years in Calgary-Edmonton matchups. The Leafs will also need a big night from Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl as well in their test against Leon Draisaitl.
The Oilers should be hungry tonight, sitting 1-3-0 through four games coming off of two consecutive losses to Montreal. However, in addition to a top-heavy offense and lagging 5v5 production, they’ve been as vulnerable as ever defensively and in net so far this season, conceding 13 goals in their three losses, with the team missing their 25+ minute defenseman Oscar Klefbom (out for the year), and Mikko Koskinen sitting below .900 in save percentage.
Game Day Quotes
Dave Tippett on the Oilers’ power play struggles versus Montreal:
We’ve got to shoot the puck more… You’ve got to pay the price to score. We didn’t bury the chances. We didn’t shoot the puck enough… If you look at the two games, we had 10 power plays, and I think we came out -2 on the power plays. That is an area that should be one of our strengths and it wasn’t the past two games.
Tippett on his team’s early struggles:
We’re still trying to figure our team out. We’ve got to get our competitive levels up. It will be good for our team to go on the road. Hopefully, with a chance of atmosphere by getting on the road, we’ll play some strong road hockey and find a way to win… We’re not getting enough sustained time in the offensive zone.
The competitive levels defending — defending the front of the net, winning battles in our own zone — is where we are having some issues. For the most part, our team works hard, but there is a competitive level of winning battles — winning loose-puck battles, stick battles, and defending the front of your net — and that is where we need to improve on.
Matthews on the NHL going away from the tracking-chip pucks after hearing complaints:
We noticed it a bit. Spezz was the first one to bring it up to me. I told him that was why I couldn’t capitalize on some of the chances I’ve had in the first four games — some of these pucks are messed up. I think we held one of the regular pucks and one of the new ones, and there was a little bit of a difference in the weight. It seems like, sometimes, the puck wasn’t sliding as well as it normally would.
Spezz and I were pretty pumped that we are going back to the regular ones. No more excuses now. Got to bury it.
Justin Holl on Matthews’ growth in his defensive game:
I actually think Auston has been great defensively for a long time. His key to playing defense is really similar to ours (as a team), which is playing offense. That way, the other team doesn’t have the puck. When he is forced to defend, he is a heavy body and he is physical. He has great skills. He wins almost every stick battle and always seems to come away with the puck.
Sheldon Keefe on Matthews’ growth defensively:
He is just prioritizing. He knows that, A) It is required for us to win; B) He’s really good at it, and it helps him and our team get the puck back quicker. It allows him to influence the game in more ways than one. That is what being truly great is: Influencing the game in more ways than one. The best goal scorers in the world, they don’t score every game and they absolutely don’t score every shift. What are you doing when you aren’t scoring? That is where he has really grown.
He has a great stick and a great knack for winning pucks back. He is skating, working, competing, using his body. He is all in in all areas of the game.
Keefe on defending McDavid in five-man units:
Forwards have a great role to play there. We need to have layers of support. The defense is the last layer, but forwards need to do their job, starting all the way down in their end. That is really where the danger begins: How the Oilers leave their zone, their best players in particular. They are very dangerous in the rush. The forwards, and their ability to get back above it and stay above it if they are, is really important.
Facing the guy who is #1 in the NHL at generating chances on the rush, it is going to be the biggest challenge to date for us. I am excited to see how we do in that area. It was also a challenge against Winnipeg, and I thought we dealt with it fairly well. The margin for error is very small, and we have to be really focused every shift.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#97 Joe Thornton – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#26 Jimmy Vesey – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #11 Zach Hyman
#19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 T.J Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #22 Zach Bogosian
#46 Mikko Lehtonen
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#36 Jack Campbell
Marner – Thornton – Matthews
Tavares – Kerfoot – Nylander
Extras: Rasmus Sandin, Travis Boyd, Pierre Engvall, Alexander Barabanov, Adam Brooks
Injured: Nick Robertson
Edmonton Oilers Projected Lines
#93 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – #97 Connor McDavid – #44 Zach Kassian
#21 Dominik Kahun – #29 Leon Draisaitl – #56 Kailer Yamamoto
10 Joakim Nygard – #8 Kyle Turris – #13 Jesse Puljujarvi
#15 Josh Archibald – #14 Devin Shore – #38 Alex Chiasson
#25 Darnell Nurse – #20 Slater Koekkoek
4 Kris Russell– #22 Tyson Barrie
#84 William Lagesson – #6 Adam Larsson
#19 Mikko Koskinen (starter)
#50 Stuart Skinner
Extras: Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones, Jujhar Khaira, Ryan McLeod, Patrick Russell, Tyler Ennis
Injured: Oscar Klefbom, Mike Smith