A little over three weeks ago, the 18-4-2 Toronto Maple Leafs had opened up an eight-point lead in the standings over the Oilers after a 6-1 blowout capped a three-game series sweep in Edmonton.

Fast forward nine games, the Oilers have closed the gap to just two points after a 7-2 stretch for Edmonton and a 3-6-0 slump for the Leafs (who have one game in hand), setting the stage for a critical two-game series tonight and Monday.

The Oilers enter this two-game set much like they did the three-game one that went sideways on them against the Leafs less than a month ago: They’re the North Division’s hottest team, sitting 7-3-0 in their last 10.

In those 10 games, Connor McDavid and Leon Drasailtl have been lighting it up at an even hotter clip than usual, with 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) and 16 points (eight goals, eight assists), respectively. Both of them, alongside PPQB Tyson Barrie, have at least five points on the power play in those games, with four of Draisaitl’s eight goals coming on the man-advantage.

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Naturally, the biggest matchup focus for the Leafs will be on dealing with the two-headed monster of McDavid and Draisaitl as close to as effectively as they did last time, only this time it looks like they may play on the same line after spending most of the season apart. They were put together partway through their last game, while Ryan Nugent-Hopkins moved down and joined Dominik Kahun — a line that is rounded out by Kailer Yamamoto, who will return from injury tonight.

Sheldon Keefe has split the McDavid matchup fairly evenly between the Rielly-Brodie and Muzzin-Holl pairings over the season series to date, with both pairings losing the possession battle but coming out ahead on goals at 5v5 (2-0 for the Muzzin-Holl pairing, 3-1 for the Rielly-Brodie pairing). The Matthews line has played the most against McDavid head to head (2-0 in goals at 5v5), but it’s been more of a team effort overall, especially with Matthews missing two of the games against the Oilers due to injury.

While he’s naturally had his moments over the five games, commitment to staying above McDavid (and Draisaitl) through the neutral zone in order to limit his rush chances, defending in layers in the defensive zone, and reliable goaltending has been the recipe for success for the Leafs in the season series to date.

While the big guns understandably receive the lion’s share of the attention in these highly-anticipated Leafs-Oilers matchups, it’s noteworthy that the Leafs have shifted to a more balanced four-line setup among their forward group. If the Oilers load up McDavid and Draisaitl, the Leafs should be able to exploit some mismatches with the other matchups on home ice, but a big part of their success in that area will depend on William Nylander and John Tavares finding their groove again offensively at 5v5.

Edmonton hasn’t played since last Saturday after all three of their scheduled games against Montreal this week were canceled after Covid-related issues forced the Habs to postpone games. As a result, the Oilers have had lots of time to rest and prepare for this two-game set, but the flip side is that they may be dealing with some rust the Leafs could take advantage of early in the game tonight.

Starting for the Oilers in net will be 39-year-old Mike Smith, who has taken over as the Oilers’ ‘1A’ option in goal for the time being. He’s been in good form against North Division opponents not named the Leafs, winning four of his last five with an 11-3-0 record and a .922 save percentage on the season.

As for the Leafs’ goaltending situation, Sheldon Keefe didn’t have much of an update this morning regarding Frederik Andersen, who is nursing a lower-body injury at the moment. It doesn’t seem like the team is eager to rush him back and will take their time making sure he gets back to full strength. Andersen still hasn’t skated since his last start.

Jack Campbell, whose perfect record (5-0-0) and sparkling save percentage (.958) so far this season have been the talk of the town, will start his third consecutive game tonight with Michael Hutchinson backing him up. Campbell’s last start against Edmonton on February 27th was a 30-save shutout, the first of Toronto’s three-straight wins against the Oilers.

Game Day Quotes

Morgan Rielly on the Leafs’ success against the Oilers this year and what they need to do to continue that tonight:

We didn’t allow too many odd-man rushes. I just thought we played to our structure. We made it tough for them going through the neutral zone, clogged it up pretty good, and I think we’re going to have to replicate that here tonight and on Monday night.

We haven’t gone over too much. We obviously talked about what we did in those games that made us successful and what’s happened recently that’s caused a little bit of a slide.

To prepare, you just a little bit about it and you just go out there and play. We know what we have to do. We know how we played during that stretch in Edmonton. It’s important that we look back on that those games and we bring that attitude tonight that we’re going to be good defensively and capitalize on our chances.

Sheldon Keefe on Jason Spezza’s faceoff ability:

It’s been really handy, especially considering he’s a right-hand shot. That helps a lot on that dot, especially given all our centers are left-handed players. It’s been a big factor on the penalty kill. It’s helped us there a great deal. That’s another thing we utilized a little bit last season for sure, but we talked to him before camp this year about taking a bigger step in that regard.

Keefe on John Tavares’ progress defensively this season:

It’s just recognizing when it’s time to play offense and when it’s time to defend. I think a lot of our players last season hung around a little bit too long on the offensive side of it. When it was time to defend, we delayed in that decision-making process. We needed to shorten that time and get back on defense quicker. I think he’s done a terrific job of that. It’s been a major improvement in that way.

I think John would like to have more goals at five-on-five. He’s had a lot of opportunities to score those goals and it hasn’t gone in for him. While we have high expectations of him and he does of himself, I think, if you look around the league, he’s still in a pretty good place with where he is.

There’s a lot of teams that he would be leading in scoring. He would be top two in over half of the league. He’s done a lot of really good things for us and he’s been a big reason why we are where we are through this season in the standings. All that being said, I think we’re obviously looking for ways to get him more involved on the offensive side without sacrificing on the other end.

Keefe on the lineup changes at forward tonight:

A big part of it is I’ve been wanting to get Simmonds back with Tavares and Nylander — that’s a big one. I think that line to me, when Wayne left with his injury, was really just starting to get going. I think it’s the best trio we’ve had there — those guys were really going and had a lot of opportunities. Wayne was bringing a lot to the line, so I’ve been wanting to go back with that.

For Galchenyuk, giving him a good opportunity was also important. I think we’ve got him in a good place here now and we’ve liked what he’s done. There’s nothing against what he’s brought to that line, but I’ve wanted to get Wayne in that space.

Keeping that Engvall group together was important. Joe has played really good hockey against the Edmonton Oilers this season — defensively, especially. What he’s brought to those guys and how he’s played against Edmonton’s best players, he’s done a really good job. He’s been conscious of them being out there and how he needs to play.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#97 Joe Thornton  – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#88 William Nylander – #91 John Tavares – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#65 Ilya Mikheyev –  #47 Pierre Engvall – #11 Zach Hyman
#12 Alex Galchenyuk – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #19 Jason Spezza

#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 T.J Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #22 Zach Bogosian

#36 Jack Campbell (starter)
#30 Michael Hutchinson

Extras: Martin Marincin, Nic Petan, Alexander Barabanov
Injured: Frederik Andersen

Edmonton Oilers Projected Lines

#29 Leon Draisaitl – #97 Connor McDavid – #13 Jesse Puljujarvi
#21 Dominik Kahun – #93 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – #56 Kailer Yamamoto
#15 Josh Archibald – #91 Gaetan Haas – #44 Zack Kassian
#14 Devin Shore – #16 Jujhar Khaira – #39 Alex Chiasson

#25 Darnell Nurse – #22 Tyson Barrie
#84 William Lagesson– #6 Adam Larsson
#4 Kris Russell – #74 Ethan Bear

#41 Mike Smith (starter)
#19 Mikko Koskinen

Injured: Slater Koekkoek, Oscar Kelfbom, Alex Stalock